When Jenniemae's mother left Alabama, she headed north and just kept going. She had nothing more than what she needed--her children and the clothing each one had on his or her back. They planned to live with a cousin who had settled in Washington, D.C.When one of us would ask about those years in Alabama, Jenniemae had little to say. She would tell bits and pieces about the long, hard, hot, and humid days she had spent in the fields picking from the time she could stand up until the time they headed north."Pickin' cotton, pickin' berries, pickin' beets, pickin' bo-weevils, ants, spiders, chiggers, skeeters, and any other crawlin' and itchin' ugly insect you ever laid your eyes upon. Nope, nothin' to talk 'bout in those times. Nothin' but bent-over, achin' backs and hotness.
"We went up north 'cause. Just 'cause. If a person was to go away to some other place than where they lived, well, then, that person was goin' to go north," she told me. Jenniemae said that her people went to Washington, D.C., because they figured if the president lived there, life for a colored person would be better. In Washington, D.C., they all hoped they could get decent jobs. "Little did they know," she said, "and most over, little didn't they know."
Once they got to D.C. by the back of anything that moved--"Back o' the train, back o' the truck, back o' the back"--the extended Harrington family lived in a run-down, two-room bad excuse for a house located in Foggy Bottom, which today is home to the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the State Department, the Department of Interior, and the George Washington University campus. In those days it was an area mostly occupied by the working poor. Since 1860 Foggy Bottom had been a neighborhood where Negroes, as we called African-Americans back then, settled after they fled from slavery and where German and Irish immigrants settled upon arriving in this country. By 1920 the area was the home to the largest Negro business and residential community in the United States. It also became known as the home to Negro jazz and blues entertainers, and Negro intellectuals and artists. It was where Jenniemae grew up and spent most of her childhood.
Fancy automobiles driven almost entirely by white men and women ran along the paved D.C. streets while horse-drawn buggies, driven almost entirely by Negro men, pulled both cargo and people through the bumpy, stone-cobbled roads of Foggy Bottom. When the United States went to war in 1941, everyday life changed for most white people in the country as a result of gas rationing, soaring rents, and rising food prices. But for the black people of Foggy Bottom, life didn't change much at all. As Jenniemae said, "Getup with the sun, get to work by the gun, go to bed when you're done."
Excerpted from Jenniemae & James by Brooke Newman Copyright © 2010 by Brooke Newman. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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