03709_0170: I Don't Know What's the Matter

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Edward J. Bacon, no date given, Athens, Black, brick mason, Athens, 31 May and 14 June 1939

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I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S THE MATTER

written by: Mrs. Sadie B. Hornsby Area 6 - Athens

Edited by: Mrs. Sarah H, Hall Area 6 - Athens and

John N. Booth Area Supervisor Federal Writers' Project Areas 6 and 7

Augusta, Ga.

June 14, 1939

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May 31, 1939 Edward J. Bacon (Negro) 160 Berry Street Athens, Georgia Brickmason S.B.H.

I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S THE MATTER

Fred Ham's reddish brown cottage in the Lickskillet community might readily be identified as the home of a craftsman skilled in the use of brick and mortar. The paved walk that traverses the narrow space between the cement-floored veranda and the street is flanked by small brick-bordered flower beds. No steps are needed to mount the veranda, for its elevation is barely sufficient to prevent water from collecting on the floor.

A radio, going at full blast, drowned the sound of my vigorous knocking on the door, but somehow I attracted the attention of a man - a mulatto - -who was reading a newspaper as he lounged in a chair just inside the screen. There was the inflection of inquiry in his voice as he said "Yes, mam?" I attempted to explain the purpose of my visit, but my voice could not compete with the rumble of a passing train. "Come on inside. Miss," the man said. "Maybe we can hear better in here 'specially after I turn this radio down a little. My name's Fred Ham," he added by way of introduction.

The chair proffered me was one of a mahogany suite consisting of a divan, two rocking chairs, a straight chair, and a library table. The worn imitation leather upholstery was supplemented by extra cushions with gay covers of coarse red net, which reminded me of orange sacks. The matching tapestry covers on the library and

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radio tables harmonized with the window drapes. Dingy scrim curtains, indelibly soot-marked by train smoke, contrasted with the immaculate silvery wallpaper, showing a dainty design of pink roses. A kerosene lamp sat on the library table, and green glass ashtrays at convenient places about the room were overflowing with cigarette stubs and ashes. Bright red roses trailed in a gay pattern on the woolen rug.

While the deafening noise of the train made conversation difficult, Fred pulled a sack of Bull Durham from his pocket, rolled a cigarette, lit it, took several puffs, and flipped the ashes on the tin apron of the small heater. The train had passed out of earshot when he glances at the clock on the mantel, and began, "Well, Miss, if it don't take me too long I don't mind talking awhile, but I've got to go to town 'round 4 o'clock to see a man 'bout a job he promised me.

"I don't know what's the matter. It seems like I can't find work to do no more like I used to. White men don't give colored men no more work to do these days, and as much building as they have going on in this town it just don't seem right. It's mighty strange that they'll take white men from out of town rather than hire a colored man that's a citizen of this place, owns property, pays taxes right here, and spends his earnings in the local stores like I do. Those out-of-town white men are apt to send their earnings back to their home towns and not spend much here. It's a puzzle to me why colored workmen are treated like that.

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"If you want my story, you no doubt want it to start at the beginning. Well, I was born right here in Athens, on Strong Street, but it's been a long time since I lived over in that part of town. My schooldays were spent in East Athens, on West Broad Street, and at Knox Institute - just about all around town. I can remember when there wasn't but two public schools in all of Athens. The one for white children was on the corner of Washington and Jackson Streets, and the one for colored children was Knox Institute.

"In my childhood days we had a place to go in swimming up the Oconee River about a mile from town. We called it the 'kid hole,' and every boy within a radius of ten blocks swam in that place. I've seen 'most a hundred boys, both colored and white, swimming together in that place at one time. Bathing suits hadn't been heard of then. We just stripped off our clothes and dove in. When little boys that hadn't learned how to swim thought they were old enough to follow us to the swimming hole some of us would get a little distance out in the water and others on the bank would pitch the new boys in. It would scare them 'most to death and the way they would frail their arms and legs around in the water trying to keep from drowning was a mighty good swimming lesson. They didn't know we were looking out for 'em.

"When I was old enough and large enough to work out, the head Janitor at Old College on the university campus hired me at two-fifty a week. How'd I spend that first money I earned? I spent it on myself - all of it. They didn't have water piped all

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over that building like they do now, and part of my work was to carry water from the faucet in the basement and distribute it in the pitchers and buckets in 24 rooms. I did a lot of shoeshining for the college boys in that dormitory too.

"The biggest kick I got out of life in those days was running after the fire engines that were pulled by colored men. They had white fire companies and colored fire companies, and they even had their separate engine houses. I didn't bother after the white folks' engines. One day when a fire broke out and a crowd of us lit out to see the excitement, a little colored boy got in the way of one of the trucks and was knocked down. His head was badly crushed and one of his ears was cut off. That taught us a lesson about getting in front of fire engines.

"I was 17 years old when I entered Tuskegee Institute with my mind fully made up to learn all I could about working with iron. I meant to be a blacksmith, and I wanted to be as good one as that college could turn out. When I was convinced that field was overcrowded I chose the brickmason trade instead. It's a good thing I took that course, for the blacksmith business has gone down steadily since automobiles have been taking the place of horses. However, if a man's a good welder he can still get some work to do, but a jack-leg ain't able to earn much at any trade. You've got to be good if you're to get a chance to earn much these days. I didn't graduate at Tuskegee, for I was only there three years. At different times while I was there President McKinley and Mr. George Foster Peabody visited the school.

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Last edit 27 days ago by AngelikaNorin
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