Portrait of Christine Wilson

Interview with My Great Aunt Christine

Elizabeth Catlett. “Sharecropper”. 1952. printed . 1968. color linoleum cut on medium weight, cream, Japanese laid paper.
Elizabeth Catlett

The lithograph print, Sharecropper, by Elizabeth Catlett depicts the artist’s interest in the portrayal and experience of the African-American woman and the poor. A female farm worker, with rough and leathery skin from years of back-breaking labor visible on her face. She is dignified, determined, stern yet strong. A D.C. native and accomplished sculptor and printmaker, Catlett’s work aligns figurative and abstract art styles express many social climates and understood the role art played towards a given audience.Much of her work shows the depiction of strong women of color as mothers, workers, and activists. A heroic portrait of an unknown woman, Sharecropper, expresses Catlett’s belief in the strength and dignity of the of the poor laborer.

The artist above provides a perfect visual for the strong, dignified woman that I am about to discuss below.

Aunt Christine, age 89

The day before Independence Day 1927, in the comfort of their homestead in the countryside of Coweta County, Stella and Paul Wilson welcomed their youngest baby girl into their world. My Great Aunt Christina was a small yet fiesty young woman growing up. In her life time Christine, or at Aunt Betty as she is affectionately known, experienced many folds of history that has shaped the lives of many African-American families in the south. Her story like many women of her identity, tell a narrative of strength and adversity one takes despite the limitations and road blocks built against them. She like all the women in my family, share this resilent trait of being steadfast, protective, family-driven women that has been past between the form many generations beyond.

I wanted to interview Aunt Betty because she is now the oldest of our clan; wise with knowledge and understanding, she can provide me with answers to many of the questions I had about growing up in Georgia and in Coweta County specifically and how has it shaped one’s identity. I also wanted to get her take on the many aspects of black southern life like passed down traditions, the role of the mother, the socio-economic and racial climate of the past, and the importance of both family and faith in the home. I want gain insight on how these topics influenced her life growing up and what effects they have on my family in the present. Because of my Aunt’s older age, her daughter Cousin Janet willl help me in this conversation with my auntie, and I’m very grateful for it.

As I sit at work behind my glass enclosed desk in Busbee Hall, I called my mother’s first cousin, Janet to speak to both her and her mother about the speical Roots and Routes assignment that i am undertaking. Here is ore conversation.

Part One

Janet: “ Mama, this is Shane’s son. He wants to ask you some questions. She’s in here Brandon, go ahead.”
Me: “Hey, Aunt Christine.”
Aunt Christine: “Hey,”
Me: “How are you?”
Aunt Christine: “I’m doin’ alright.”
Me: “That’s good, I’ just gonna ask you a few personal questions real quick. I’ll just go ahead and start. What was it like growing up in Coweta County?”

Aunt Christine as a teenager

Aunt Christine: “It was good.”
Me: “It was good?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah!”
Janet: “Was that around the time yall did a lot of farming? Your dad farmed?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah”
Janet: “Was that in Coweta where you did that?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah.”
Janet: “They farmed Brandon, and they grew all their food. I think y’all had pigs…”
Aunt Christine: “We had cows, pigs, horses.”
Janet: “They had mules. Her dad would grow found and take it around the neighbors, and he helped to feed people during the Great Depression too.”
Me: “Oh wow!”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah we had a big farm.”
Me: “Y’all had a big farm?”
Janet: “Tell’ em what you had on it mama.”
Aunt Christine: “We had Ribbon cane, syrup, meal…”
Janet: “Y’all made y’all own syrup?”
Aunt Christine: “Uh huh.”
Janet: “Ok. They used to make syrup, churn their own butter. They would can a lot of their foods Brandon. Fresh tomatoes, corn and they would make a soup mix, they used to make soups doing the winter they would, They would store their foods…”
Aunt Christine: “In cans.”
Janet: “They didn’t have refrigeration like we do.”
Aunt Christine: “No we didn’t have them thangs, we had um… whatcha call them thangs?”
Janet: “A salt box.”
Aunt Christine: “Mhmm.”
Janet: “They had a salt box and they had like a smoker area, in the barn where they used to hang hams and stuff…”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah we would have it out there in the barn.”
Janet: “Hmm, So they would cure the meats.”
Aunt Christine: “We had cows, mules, and pigs.”
Janet: “Was that around the time y’all were picking cotton too?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah Uh-huh.”
Janet: “Were y’all picking cotton for you all or where y’all picking cotton for someone else?”
Aunt Christine: “We were picking cotton for ourselves; we would run our own business.”
Janet: “Really? You hear that Brandon?”
Me: “Uh huh!”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, we had all that.” 
Janet: “So when your Dad had to tell y’all to get up… What time did y’all have to get up to go pick the cotton?”
Aunt Christine: “The first time the sun came peaking up a little bit.”
Janet: “OK, They would get up early in the morning. They would stay out there and then break for lunch when the sun the sun was straight up in the air, right?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah.” 
Janet: “Yeah and they would go in to eat but they would stay from like early in the morning to it got really hot and then they would eat then they would have to go back out wouldn’t you?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, we would have to go back out for a while and pick the cotton.”

Artist unknown

Janet: “And y’all sold the cotton that y’all picked?”
Aunt Christine: “They carried it to the cotton to the gin house and make a bill of cotton.”
Janet: “How much did y’all get paid for that?”
Aunt Christine: “Get a heed, that’s where your money come from!”
Janet: “When they would go work Brandon they would pay them. She would pack a bag of cotton they would pay her about twenty-five cents for a bag of cotton! (Laughs) You hear that Brandon?” 
Me: “Wow, twenty-five cents!”
Janet: “They were fending for themselves. They had their own… Tell him about some of the stuff y’all experienced. That you say when y’all were children, y’all had would walk to school?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah we would walk from uh… We were close to Ebenezer Church.”
Janet: “And you here that Brandon? They would go to school and had school from like the first grade to the sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. They didn’t go all the way to the twelfth.”
Aunt Christine: “Then you could go to a school down towards Mt. Calvary, and there was a school down there.”
Janet: “Another school that you could go?” 
Aunt Christine: “Year another school where you would go a finish schooling.”
Janet: “You here that Brandon?”
Me: “Yeah, I heard it.”
Janet: “Ok. There was family members as kids y’all used to walk a lot.”
Aunt Christine: “When we went to school we had to walk from… uh let me see, I can’t think of the name of it (pause) … Come from Sharpsburg!”
Me: “From Sharpsburg?” 
Aunt Christine: “and then we had to walk downhill…”
Janet: “Now you told me when it got dark y’all had to…”
Aunt Christine: “Get in there! Get in there! (Laughs)”
Janet: “They would get in the woods…” 
Aunt Christine: Get in the woods so the folks won’t see us and call somebody ’cause they was mean.”
Janet: “They would through at them. But you told me that when y’all were going up some of your family members got burned up too didn’t you?”
Aunt Christine: “He burnt them! He went in the house and burnt Leb and them. That’s Uncle Paul son.”
Janet: “Ok, so that was your cousin?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, uh-huh.”
Janet: “They burned the house down?”
Aunt Christine: “No! They burnt him with an iron, the children and them!”
Janet: “Oh, they…”
Aunt Christine: “They come in the house on them…”
Janet: “…so they burned them with stakes?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, uh-huh.”
Me: “Wow!”
Janet: “Didn’t you say they burnt the house down too though? Or they just burned them.”
Aunt Christine: “Just burnt them.”

Hugo Gellert. Stake in the Commonwealth. 1935

Janet: “They branded them.” 
Aunt Christine: “Burn them. Burn the house. They would do anything!”
Janet: “Now you said when y’all were going up that they burnt some people up in Palmetto too, or something like that?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, those buildings beside the rail road tracks.”
Janet: “Right.”
Aunt Christine: “They put the peoples in there and burned them.”
Janet: “You hear that Brandon?”
Me: “Mhmm.”
Janet: “Ok, let me go ahead and let you give her your next question. I’m just tryna make sure she remember some stuff she told me.”
Me: “Ok. What was your fondest memory of your childhood growing up?”
Aunt Christine: “Oh it was good ’cause we all stayed with our mama and daddy, and I’d go visit grandma! That’s Myrie, that’s our grandmother. Muh and Aunt Olive and Aunt Selene, Aunt Vassie. All them, and Aunt Sarah… Rowe? No, Myrie Hardy! Her husband name was uh… let me see I know hs name… it was uh… JT Hardy!”
Janet: “Mhmm.”

click to enlarge

Aunt Christine: “He was the daddy. He had Bruce, Marvin…”
Janet: “So y’all had family members down there, and everybody ate, cause the was hungry.”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah Muh’s mama would over there and cook.”
Janet: “So y’all ate dinner there?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, We’d go up there to wash up clothes too. There was a spring up there and we would wash clothes…
Janet: “So your Grandmother was the leader of the pack?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah, Sarah Rowe.”
Janet: “Your mama was too? She was the big sister of her family…”

Part Two

Aunt Christine: “We had a farm. We had some of everything. We would plan it. We had a garden: cabbage, collards, beats, and then we had a… then we had a sweet potato patch.”
Me: “A sweet potato patch?”
Aunt Christine: “yeah, we would have them in different places. Then when winter come, we’d get them up and put them in a bed. Make a bed out of hay and stuff. We had planks you could put over the hay, so it won’t flow down.”
Janet: “That was to protect them?’
Aunt Christine: “Uh-huh. Kept them all from…”
Janet: “From the weather?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah from the weather. And people would come get them, get some of them too. We’d give it to them”
Janet: “Oh Really?”
Aunt Christine: “Uh-huh we didn’t sale nothing, we’d give it to them.”
Janet: “Wow! So they were feeding the community Brandon. People knew that he was the type of farmer that he would farm…He had what? How many was it, let’s see…Four boys. Your dad had four boys and three girls?”
Aunt Christine: “Yeah.”
Janet: “There was Sister (Aunt Catherine), Frizelle and…”
Aunt Christine: “Me.”
Janet: “And you…”
Aunt Christine: “Uh-huh.” 
Janet: “And then it was your brother how went to army, Uncle Mulk, Jesse…
Aunt Christine + Janet: There was Jay, Ira, Jesse… and RL!
Janet: “Ok so there was four boys and three girls, so seven of them! Did y’all have some people to help y’all farm?”
Aunt Christine: “It was us.”
Janet: “The Children?”
Aunt Christine: “uh-huh”
Janet: “And some of the uncles…”
Aunt Christine: They ain’t do nothing but stay and ride in their cars…”
Janet: “And come get stuff when they wanted?”
Aunt Christine: “Uh-huh. They would go in the barn and get it.” 
Janet: “Mhmm. So the children basically helped with the farming Brandon, and Mama did a lot of it. She was… Her nickname was Bill because her daddy treated her like a son. He taught her everything. And he would say, ‘Come on Bill!’ (Laughs)”
Me: Laughs
Janet: “we would do that because he knew she was catching everything he was doing.”
Aunt Christine: “And I go spend the night with Grandma Myra Hardy, and she didn’t care if I get close to her. She didn’t want burglars to catch her, so I slept in the bed with her.”
Janet: “SO she let the grandbaby stay close to her but the daughter had to stay away.”
Janet, Aunt Christine and I laugh.
Aunt Christine: “See I knew how to do everything! They couldn’t do what I could do!”
Janet: “So she liked family, and they liked family like we do now. They liked doing big food and take care of people. And she’d tell us a story about how she had a dog that was her best friend. And the daddy got that dog for her cause he would send her out to do things and he would send the dog with her. He was a little bulldog wasn’t he?”
Aunt Christine: “Yea he was a little bulldog. And one day I went out there at the pin he was at and he kept asking for some (food) and I told him, ‘Now I done gave you some! Now hush, shut up’, and I pointed at him. He come towards me and Daddy say, ‘I’ll kill you darn dog’!”
Aunt Christine, Janet and I laugh.
Janet: “They was yelling at the dog! Daddy say I’m gonna kill yah!”
Janet: “Tell him how y’all used to do y’all clothes Mama, how y’all used to make y’all clothes.”
Aunt Christine: “Oh with the sewing machine!” 
Janet: “But yeah didn’t you say y’all had to use those burlap bags to carry them?”
Auntie: “Yeah! Those were are slips.”
Janet: “So y’all didn’t through nothing away?”
Auntie: “No, uh-uh! We kept everything. We had sugar cane, lemon cane…”
Janet: “Tell him about your Christmas.”
Auntie: “Oh at Christmas that was a good time! Daddy be Santa Claus and he put that stuff up some kind of way so we couldn’t find it.”
Janet: “She said that he would give them and orange…”
Auntie + Janet: “An apple.”
Janet: “And a piece of candy.” 
Me: “For Christmas?”
Auntie + Janet: “Yeah for Christmas.”
Janet: “They had a simple life Brandon, but as you can tell they didn’t lack. They worked hard. And from the census that we looked at It says that he (JT Hardy) was a farmer and it shows that…”
Auntie: “And the man we rented the house from, He didn’t want Daddy to move. He told Daddy you almost in that house. I would’ve stayed there, but that’s when we moved up close to…”
Janet: “It was sort of like they were sharecroppers.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Auntie: “All of us was sharecroppers.”
Janet: “Y’all would share what y’all had raised?”
Auntie: “Yep”
Janet: “And the man they had shared with, he didn’t want them to leave…”
Auntie: “He lived in Atlanta or somewhere I think.”
Janet: “But her Mama said no!”
Janet: “So they moved two or three times. But you said your granddaddy had property down in Sharpsburg right? Right down there, not too far from Aunt Vassie? Remember, you just showed me property there. In the corner down there…”
Auntie: “Oh that was Grandpa’s property down there at that hill! And he was gonna build a house down there and he never did.”
Janet: “So he had property in Sharpsburg?
Auntie: “Yeah, Right in that whole where you turn into… Now white folks done build houses down there. They took what was theirs.”
Janet: “There’s our forty acres!”
Janet: “Ok Brandon you have another question?”
Me: “Yes, what was the most heart breaking memory or the saddest memory you can think of?”
Auntie: Oh when Jay, he went down Ruthy Belle and them house, and he had been drinking liquor…
Janet: “This is Jay…”
Auntie: “Yeah my older brother Jay. And we was at church. They brought him home and he got in the car and wrecked the car… The boy’s car. But daddy got him and put him on a train and sent him to Cincinnati.”
Janet: “So that’s when he sent him away. Yeah this is her oldest brother. He went out hanging with some of his friends… He got in trouble, and Dad had to end up sending him away.”
Me: “What did he get in trouble for?”
Janet: He was drinking and he wrecked somebody’s car. He was drinking something they had concocted, probably some white lightning (moonshine) and got drunk. He got put in jail right?”
Auntie: “Yeah, he was in jail.” 
Janet: “And he broke out the jail, and his daddy sent him away to Cincinnati!”
Me: “Wow!”
Auntie: He went in the army for a while, and then when he got out he stayed with…”
Janet: “But he was never right after the army and he died at a young age, now if you go down to the church, what’s the church’s name Mama?”
Auntie: “Oh that’s Ebenezer. That’s where all of them buried at” 
Janet: “If you go down there, his grave is there. Her mother’s grave, Stella’s grave is there… They’re all there.”
Me: “I think I remember them when I was little. When I was a Grandma Frizelle’s funeral I remember them pointing them out to me.” 
Janet: “Matter fact they’re old now, so I got to get some work done on them cause the kind of falling in.”
Auntie: “And a lot buried at the other church like Uncle Moody and them from Detroit…. What’s the name of that church?” 
Me: “Mt. Calvary?’
Auntie: “No not Mt. Calvary it was another church.”
Janet: “You told me but I don’t remember the names. Stella can probably tell you Brandon, she’ll probably know…”
Auntie mumbles: “What you mean I can tell him too, I can remember the names too!”
Everyone laughs.
Auntie: “Bethel!”
Janet: “Oh Bethel! Yeah a lot of them are buried over there… Ok go ahead Brandon, You have another question for her?”
Me: “Yes ma’am. What do you remember about your mother Stella Wilson?”
“…Muh did some of everything.”
Me: “Do you remember how she used to dress? Or anything personality wise about her?”

Christine’s Mother, Stella “Muh” Wilson

Janet: “She was real quiet. Cause I remember Muh. She was still living when I was here, but she was usually quiet wasn’t see?” 
Auntie: “Mhmm. She could do anything”
Janet: “Yeah she was real hard working. She was a cook. She would take care of the house. She would take care of the other family members. She would cry when they would get in trouble. And she would try to give them some money if they needed some. She had special recipes that she even cooked for us. She would work and she would also new how to make medicine out of herbs you would find. Cause I remember when Mama was sick, she would go find stuff and she could tell what it was. Like she would go to the woods and places like that. Whit her mother and grandmother being Indians. Her Grandmother Sarah taught them different stuff on how to make teas and medicinal stuff.”
Auntie: “She had a big house.”
Janet: “You talking about your grandma, Sarah Rowe.”
Auntie: “Mhmm. She…”
Janet: “Now she remember her Brandon! Now that’s the Indian. She told us about this Brandon. This is one of the memories she shared with use she told us that one day she went to church and the pastor said something to her and she turned around and what did she say? She told him she gonna do what she wanted to do didn’t she?”
Auntie: “She did what she wanted to do. She danced down the aisle strutting and dancing!” 
Everyone laughs. 
“That’s Sarah Rowe!”
Janet: “That’s the mama! That’s the mama! That was your Great Grand-mama!”
Auntie: “Yeah.” 
Janet: “Yeah cause that was Myrie’s, your grandmother’s mama.”
Auntie: “Yeah everybody did some of everything…”
Janet: “Yeah they all did something despite the limitations they had against them. You couldn’t go just anywhere and matter of fact a lot of them moved away from Georgia to the north where jobs were o make a living. A lot of them worked for the companies up there….We had some quit family member’s Brandon but we also had our share of rebels!” 
Everyone laughs.
Janet: “…a lot of the transportation during that time was walking. Her dad had a wagon but y’all walked.” 
Me: “Y’all walked everywhere?”
Auntie: “Yeah.”
Janet: “Something I remember about Grandma going up is that they would do the things they were taught, like eating fresh foods. Unlike stuff we have in stores now like these pre-packaged foods. They cooked their food fresh and that’s why they lived longer. You got another one for use Brandon?”
Auntie: When we was growing up we went to Newnan every Saturday.
Janet: Really!? Every Saturday? 
Auntie: “Yeah to go see folks and go get food!”
Janet: “So y’all would go every Saturday just to shop?”
Auntie: “Yeah. And meet boyfriends.” 
Janet: “Did you say meet boyfriends?”
Auntie: “Yeah meet boyfriends!”
Everyone Laughs.
Auntie: “But yeah on the main road they would through stuff at us to break our legs off…”
Janet: “You mean like a Molotov cocktail?”
Auntie: “No not one of them, I know what they are.”
Janet: “You mean a grenade?! Somebody through a grenade at y’all?!”
Auntie: “Yeah! They pulled me back. They was in the car; probably some white folks.”
Me: “What did your mother share about her upbringing and her family?”
Janet: “What did Muh tell you about her growing up?”
Auntie: “Oh they still stayed at home and lived with they Daddy. Yeah but he died.”
Janet: “Was he a farmer too?”
Auntie: “Yeah.”
Janet: “So I believe they were famers too. They had fifteen children on each side. But they did what her daddy basically did: they farmed.”
Auntie: “the girls did more than the boys did.
Janet: “So they did farming too Brandon. Wasn’t much else you could do besides that? Go ahead Brandon what’s you next question?”
Me: “What stuff did your mother teach you just about Life?”
Auntie: They told us to be careful. They told us not to fool with them white folks. One day white police’s children showed up and throw rocks at us.”
Janet: “So basically it was separated Brandon. They were taught to stay in their yard and to do what we were taught to keep a low profile, and don’t get out of your lane cause you could get in trouble.”
Auntie: They would come over there to us, but we tore them children up!” (Laughs) 
Janet: “So they go in a rock fight and they won!”
Everyone laughs. 
Janet: “This has been passed down through generations. Muh used to stay with us, with me and my brother. She taught us how to cook, how to clean. She would tell you how to stay out of trouble, work hard, and basically try to have a decent life. Those are some of the things I remember her talking about. And one of the things she also did is if you came and asked her for something, and mama said her dad was the same way. They weren’t about tryna hoard a lot of stuff. SO they were accustomed to sharing and helping other people. And Muh was the same way.”
Me: Were there any storytelling or craft traditions passed down?

Painting by artist Faith Ringgold

Janet: “Yall did quilting?”
Auntie: Yeah! We did that.”
Janet: “They did quilting. She passed down recipes; cooking was a thing she did. She used to tell y’all stories to about things that went on. Y’all would seat around and tell stories?
Auntie: “Yeah.”
Janet: Plus they didn’t have t.v. but they did bible readings. They had to read the bible. They would play outside and that would be their play. Now I know that Mama and Muh passed this down to use but they used to sweep out their yards. They would clean up outside like they did inside. They would sweep those yards…”
Me: Since we were talking about the bible, how important was religion for you growing up? 
“Oh we had to go to church!”
Janet: “They HAD to go to church! That was part of their heritage. Church was a part of our background; it was very important and it still is. But back in the day when they were little they didn’t have an option of going or not. It was also a part of their schooling. It was the center part of their life. What you got next Brandon?”
Me: This is my last question: Black in the South. What does that mean to you? How did race play a factor growing up in Coweta County?”
Auntie: “They (white people) tried to be tough but we could whip them!”
Janet: “You heard that?” (Laughs)
Me: “What she say?” 
Janet: “‘They tried to be tough but we could whip them!’. They were wise enough to survive it basically. Her and daddy used to tell us stories about what happened around that time about people being killed, someone that had been hanged. Now was that a family member or someone y’all knew. 
Auntie: Somebody we knew.
Janet: “Basically the word would pass, if something was going on trouble wise they would know about it. They were smart enough to stay out of harm’s way because they had been taught to do that.’
Auntie: “You don’t know about that long building out there…”
Janet: “Yea I know what you are talking about. That train station by Palmetto. Apparently it was one of the scariest times for them was when they burned them people in that building out there in Palmetto. They would hear about stuff and they had a communication chain as if when something went down other family members would know about it. I know for a fact when we were young, Daddy told his sons not to go here, I don’t want you near Fayetteville, I don’t want you in Palmetto. The same thing their dad told them is passed on to their children. And even to mine. Because even though they say things have changed, I still don’t want my children to be hang down in Fayetteville because it depends on who you run into down there. They are still some people that hold one to that heritage of we run this and we allow you to come that way.”
Me: “They had to be wise of who they hung around with of who they came in contact with.”
Janet: “Right! They stayed in their home. They stayed in their places where they would do their farming but they knew how to be careful when they went at home because they knew they had to be careful. Mama said she don’t think some of them are ever going to change. It’s ingrained in them, in their heritage; when she saying them she talking about the white people they experienced in their childhood. Go ahead it seems like you were going to ask for something.” 
Me: “Actually that’s it. Y’all answered my questions.
Janet: “Ok, you think you gonna have enough to write up your report?”
Me: “Yes ma’am I do” 
Janet: “Well I’ll be in touch with you….”
Aunt Christine: “When I was little…. (Confusion)…”
Janet: “You hear that? She said when she was little, she would go around helping relatives and children down in that area. And she said she was little but they had to do what they had to in order to survive. 
Me: “And that’s important of any family having to do what needs to be done in order to survive and keep each other safe.”
Janet: She lived through it because Mama’s birthday was July 3, 1927 so that’s a long way from the 50’s when things started to change a little bit…. She was grown when she was little by the way! (Laughs) But they grew up fast cause they only went to school till like the sixth or seventh grade. So when they got out of school they was working.
Me: Thank y’all so much. Love y’all.
Janet: Love you to keep up the good work! And let us know when it’s time for you to graduate ok.
Me: “Yes ma’am I will.”
Janet: “Alright take care!”
Me: “Take care. Love y’all!”

Audio from our interview

Part One

Part Two