The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake

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My father slammed the door on my finger. I don’t remember which finger it was. My mother said, “You can’t remember that!” But I do remember it. It was down on Wolf Street [in Baltimore]. You know I used to talk German? All the people where we lived were German. We were the only colored people on Wolf Street, and she says I can’t remember Wolf Street, and I can .

When you moved shortly after that, what type of neighborhood did you enter?

All colored. That’s why my mother moved. I’d say, “Gute Nacht.” The little bit I did talk, I’d talk German, and my mother didn’t want me to. So they moved to Eden Street.

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Ten. But I never saw any of them. None of them lived to be over three or four months old.

W ere there other relatives? Grandparents?

I never heard my mother or my father speak of his mother or father, or her mother or father, never in my life. They must have been sold when they were babies. I didn’t have grandmothers and grandfathers. You’re due four, ain’t you? Well, I ain’t had the first.

Tell me about your parents, your memories of them.

I loved my mother and father. I had the best mother and father! My mother would kill you, then sit down and cry.

My father never knew where his hat was. He’d come in, and instead of hanging his hat he’d put it anywhere. Then I’d look under a chair somewhere and find his hat. I was crazy about him. John Sumner Blake. Don’t leave that Sumner out—he’ll turn over in his grave.

My father was fifty years old when I was born. My birthday is his birthday: seventh day of February, 1833, for him, ’83 for me. He was a big, tall man, never was sick in his lifetime. He was a stevedore, a boss stevedore, unloaded boats—piecework. So many feet of lumber, so many cents. My father made nine dollars a week when he worked. He lived to be eighty-three years old.

Had both of your parents been slaves?

Well, my mother would say, “I was never no slave.” That’s the only willful lie I ever heard her tell. Then my father would say, “Did you pick cotton?”

“Yes.”

“Did the white man pay you?”

“No.” My father’d wink at me.

My father was a big man, masculine. He and all his brothers were big, strapping men, and during slavery, see, they put them into stud. He told me that they only got fresh meat and they only got sugar and preserves when they were going into stud. They could tell when they were going into stud, they gave them the best of meat, the best of everything, just the same as the white people had.

But my father told me he never had on a pair of leather shoes until he went into the army, Civil War.

So he fought in the Civil War?

Yes. My father was shot eleven times—legs, back, eleven times—not all in one battle. When the slavery was over and they were free, he worked for his master and saved enough money to come to Baltimore. It only cost a dollar and a half, but he’s got to eat on the boat and spend one night. That’s how he got to Baltimore.

My father started to school after the war. His army shoes were worn out, so he’s got to put on the carpet shoes, like when he was a slave. Some ex-slaves, they had leather brogan shoes on, big brass thing on the sides. One of them said, “Get yourself a pair of shoes, John. Look at the shoes we got. Slavery’s over!”

Now he’s not in school half an hour and he hauls off and hits one of those guys and got thrown out of school. He never got back in school. He went to school for half an hour.

But my father could read, ’cause the master’s daughter taught him. She could have been killed for doing that.

How about your own education? Were you living in the Eden Street house when you started to school?

Yes, that’s where I started to school, and that’s when I started smoking. The first day I went to school my mother gave me two cents for codfish cakes. She registered me and showed me how to get to school. Now instead of me buying codfish cakes when the man came in the school yard selling little codfish cakes, penny apiece, I go round to Miss Essman’s and say to Miss Essman, “My father says send him two cents’ worth of cigarettes.” They used to break the packs in those days.

Now here’s where she stuck me. I can’t read, I can’t write, I don’t know the names of cigarettes, and she said, “What kind of cigarettes does your father smoke?” I said, “ You know what kind my father smokes!” And she gave me either Cycles or Drums. The reason I know that is it was four for a cent and I got eight cigarettes, and I have never stopped smoking cigarettes in my life.

You must have been about seven years old.

No! Six years old when I went to school.

Tell me, about your schooling.