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1 Otis R. Anthony African Americans in Florida Oral History Project Oral History Program Florida Studies Center University of South Florida, Tampa Library Digital Object Identifier: A31 00036 In terviewee: Bessie McG ee (BM) Interview er : Herbert Jones (H J) Interview date: September 13, 1978 Interview location: Unknown Transcribed by: Unknown Transcription date: Unknown Interview changes by: Kimberly Nordon Changes date: December 29, 2008 Final Edit by: Mary Beth Isaacson Final Edit date: Februar y 3, 2009 H erbert J ones : When you were born and this type thing? Bessie McGee : I was born in Thomasville, Georgia, November 25, 1 8 93. HJ: And do you remember what year you came to Tampa? BM: 1910. HJ: Can you tell me anything, us anything about Worl d War I, how life was in Tampa for blacks during World War I? BM: Well this is a ring was give n to me World War I the fellow I was going with then give me that whe n he was leaving; it's my birthstone. HJ: Oh that's beautiful. BM: Cause I worn it in t wo, two or three times. HJ: How was life in Tampa? BM: Well in Tampa it was just glory to me, because I came here from a small town Bainbridge, Georgia a very small town. You can imagine what Tampa was to me then, but it wasn't nothing like it is now Be cause when I came here, I came o n the train and they had a depot like you have in Georgia and it wasn't as good as the one that I left in Georgia ; it was o n the corner of Polk [Street] and Franklin [Street] in Tampa, that's where I got off the train t here at the depot. And Tampa was kind of poor then ; it's another Tampa now from what it was when I came here.
2 HJ: How old were you when you came here? BM: I had my eighteenth birthday here, but I came here I gues s around about seventeen or near eighteen cause I had my eighteenth birthday here. HJ: Okay whe n you came, what type of work were blacks doing? BM: Well, the blacks were doing mostly anything they could get then and a lot of them was working in the cigar factory. HJ: Did you work in the cig ar factory? BM: Uh huh. HJ: How much were you making when you started working in the cigar factory? BM: Oh well I'll make twelve dollars some weeks and when I learned, why then it came up to eighteen dollars a week and of course that was something to a $1.25 a week and a $1.50 what I was getting in Georgia. HJ: Were a lot of blacks employed there? BM: Yeah, quite a few, mostly Cubans and Italians I'll say Latin people. HJ: What year was it that you started working where you were working? BM: Oh a round about eleven 1911. HJ: Okay how was the housing conditions for blacks; w h ere did the blacks basically live? BM: Well they lived most everywhere, but among the w hites then. When I first came here I wa s living, my mother was living o n the corner o f [North] Boulevard and Laurel [Street] HJ: Were those streets named then those streets had names like that when y'all came here? BM: Uh huh, when I came yeah we were living right o n the corner of Boulevard and Laurel. HJ: In a house? BM: Oh yeah, a pretty good house, but wasn't no bathroom. A nd we didn't have running water I mean a hot and cold we didn't have that and it was an Italian house, and most
3 of our neighbors was Italians. HJ: Did you have any problems with them? BM: Oh no, they were v ery nice people W hen they were around they were better than our people cause they don't tend your business and please don't you tend to their s but they were very nice people. HJ: Do you remember when Dr. Benjamin Mays was here working with the Urban Le ague? BM: Doctor who? HJ: Mays, Benjamin May s, cause that was around 1922, somewhere like that. BM: (inaudible) I just do remember, but not much about it. HJ: Okay what about the streetcars? BM: (inaudible) Oh the streetcars, they was nice long gree n ones, then. HJ: And how mu ch did you have to pay to ride o n them? BM: I think they were five or ten cent. HJ: And you had to sit at the back? BM : Sat in the back, by all means; you get to far in front they ask you to go in the back. HJ: Okay can you tell me anything about the land boom here in Tampa, when land was plentiful and folks was buying up land and stuff like that ; do you remember that? BM: I just do remember that long at that time, but in the later years I ah I help name oh not Lincoln Garden, the other one. HJ: Carver City? BM: Uh huh, but I had to o much name, I named it George Carver, but I got something. They's giving prizes and I was the twelfth one that sent in a name and I think I was the second or third that sent in that. I had the Carver right, but I put a little to o much to it and they had, they was giving P yrex dishes and I got there to o late ; it was the Urban League o n Lamar [Avenue] then. I got there t o o late and they gave me a razor set and I was working at Saint Joseph [Ho spital] so (inaudible) back to the hospital and showed it and then a man brought it, so I was lucky about that. HJ: What type of lifestyle did blacks have in early Tampa, like when you first came in
4 1911, what did y'all do for entertainment, like you kn ow did you go dances, parties? BM: Yeah we went to dances and parties. And then we would give parties o n Saturday nights, we give church parties to raise money, like the churches have we would raise our money that way. HJ: When you first came here what church did you go to? BM: O h I went to Beulah [Baptist Church] I was here HJ: Are you still at Beulah? BM: Yeah, I done helped 'em build two churches. HJ: We ll I done seen you there, I've su ng at Beulah a lot of times, with from USF [ University of South Florida ] BM: Well I helped 'em build two churches, cause when I joined we was at Longshoremen [Longshoremen's Hall] then that's where it was. And it took me two years to make up my min d whether to join Beulah or Bethel [Baptist Church] So I th ought about well when I was converted in Bainbridge, Georgia it was the F irst Baptist C hurch, so I join Beulah and I've been there ever since. HJ: Okay, so you were here when Beulah had that bust right, when they broke up and went different ways, cause Beulah came from another church right, before? BM: I don't know, but Beulah has plenty children what I mean by that is you know they moved out and started another church. HJ: Yeah, that's what I was talking about W here did they move out from, what churc h did they move out from? BM: They moved ou t from Beulah, it was St. John [Progressive Missionary Baptist Church]. HJ: Oh these churches branched out from Beulah into others? BM: Beulah, I said that our churches St. John, New Hope [Missionary Baptist C hurch] New Salem [Missionary Baptist Church] in Hyde Park. HJ: Why did the people want to branch out, do you know why? BM: Oh well things went wrong and they wasn't satisfied. Greater Bethel [Baptist Church] is one of our children, and Beulah was 113 years old last month. HJ: What about the schools, how were the schools in Tampa, during the early '30 s as far
5 back as you can remember? BM: I don't remember so well, but I remember I went to Meacham [Elementary School], and Miss Tina [Christina Meacham] was teaching there and I went three weeks and I didn't like her. And so then I just stopped and went to work. HJ: Okay what about the police brutality here, were the policemen real cruel to black folks? BM: Well Mr. Davis and I can't think of the other one s name ; they were right cruel to the people o n Central [Avenue] HJ: If you went o n Central they didn't bother with you too much? BM: Oh, yeah, they bother you. If they had to ; they didn't bother you if you behaved yourself. HJ: When you first came here in 1910, did they have a Central then Central Avenue, was there a Central Avenue then? BM: Yeah. HJ: What was o n there then? BM: More than there is now. Oh boy that was our street yeah there was some good times back then I mean you wasn't afra id that; you just had a nice time. And o n Sundays, o n Sundays we wasn't going o n Sunday afternoon cause Sunday you had to go to church in the morning, but o n Sunday afternoon you would just e njoy walking on Central it was o n Central and Scott [Street] and stand up and l ook at people pass Or go over there in Webb Drugs tore it wasn't Webb then, it was something else, I can't remember and sit down and look at the people pass. And then we use to go out to Palmetto Beach, out there cause they had a dance and e verything out there. Then we use to go on Central to a t heatre ; was then Anderson, now the Anderson Building. B ut we just had a good time long in that time, and especially for me, cause see I was from a small town. And of course it was just oh, I thought I was something when I could go abo ut in different places to go to theaters. HJ: Do you remember anything about the Tampa riots in the forties [19 40s ]; there was a big riot against some blacks and w hites in the forties [19 40s ] and they called it the Tamp a Riots? BM: Now part of the time I was in Sarasota working. In the forties [1940 s ] I think I was here but I don't remember a riot, I can't place it. That could have been in Sarasota, but you ain't talking about the time when Rev erend [A. Leon] Lowr y had the HJ: No that was in the late fifties [1950 s ]
6 BM: I can't think of very much to help y'all, I'm sorry ; old and forgetful now honey. HJ: No you're doing okay. Can you tell me like during World War I, you got th e ring from your boyfriend. O kay wa s he from Tampa this guy was from Tampa, and he went to fight in World War I right? Okay so what type of work were you doing then? BM: I most ly did maid. I worked in the cigar factory for a long time, then I got mad cause they strike t o o much. One year just bout three weeks to Christmas, I had things put up i n Ybor City, and things put up o n Franklin [Street] and they had a strike. Then I had to go to work in service and I didn't like that so much. So that's when I quit working in the factory after wo rking in service. HJ: You were working at the cigar factory during the time of World War I, were you not? W as this after was after World War I or during World War I you were doing the service work? BM: I was doing the s ervice work. HJ: Were jobs hard to find during World War I? BM: I don't think so. I worked for a lady she was from Alabama and I worked for them. And anytime there was a crowd going off for the service, honey she had to let me off, cause I had to go the station and see 'em off. I had and then go back and fix dinner, but I had to see those boys off. HJ: You had to go? BM: Oh I had to go, you swear I was going to the [United States] A rmy. HJ: Why did you have to go? BM: I don't know; it was just o ne of those things. I had to go. HJ: W ould there be other people down there to o ? BM: Oh like this, and t hey were crying and falling out. I had to go. Well this is a crowd going off, I know you are going, I wanted to say you lucky I came at all. HJ: So how long it would take you before they would go? How long would you have to take off from work? BM: I don't whatever time they was going. HJ: She wouldn't say nothing?
7 BM: Uh uh ; they knowed honey see they seen the paper before I did, so they know they either had to go out to dinner or f ix it. HJ: Or wait until you come back? BM: They'll fix or either they'll go out to dinner. HJ: Doing the time when you were young and black folks got sick, where did they go to get help, medical help when they were sick? BM: We ll, at that time I didn' t know no where but to Clara Fry e [Hospital] and it was on Lamar then and they closed the poor county. HJ: How was the facilities there, and the help at Clara Fry e ? BM: It was nice, I guess, at some point, but I didn't get to go there. But it was all we had, that and the county. HJ: Though they would let you go to the county for help? You had your separate sides of course the blacks from the w hite? BM: I gues s, cause I didn't go there. In later years they had the County Hospital and right down the roa d was the Welfare. HJ: Well just tell us some things in general that y'all use, that you just did when you coming up in Tampa, just anything. BM: I didn't come, I wasn't raised in Tampa. HJ: I mean from the time you came here, from 18 ah what did you do, some of the things that you did, and some of the things that black folks d id here, that you can remember? BM: I just can't remember to o much about it I know we worke d some in the factories, some do ing house work, some doing laundry work M y mother di d laundry work. HJ: Do you know how much she was making? BM: N o, I don't. I know one job I was o n I made $3.50. HJ: A week? BM: Course that was h e aven as to what I had left. HJ: And how much would your rent be and stuff like that?
8 BM: Oh that was cheap, $1.75 or $2 a week. HJ: Food was very cheap? BM: Food was cheap. HJ: Did y'all ever have the twenti eth what is that thing ? the twenti eth of May celebration here in Tampa with blacks did blacks ever celebrate that day? 1 BM: I don't remember 'em celebrating that day like we did in Georgia. HJ: What about Gas when the fair came to town, did y'all do anything during that time? BM: N o we weren't in that. But in later years when my brothers got grown, they had them maybe serving the crew Gasparill a crew they be serving and things, two of my brothers. HJ: What about did you ever run into any problems when you were working in the factori es, like with the white workers; did they treat the black workers different? BM: No, I didn't never have no probl em T hey were mostly Latin people working at times ; sometime you would have trouble with your foreman. Especially when he couldn't speak English and you couldn't speak Italian or Spanish. HJ: Wasn't no problem with them calling you n igger? BM: No, u h uh. HJ: What about when you was working in service, were any of the f amilies extremely harsh or s l a ve driver type? BM: No, no. And I worked in one family eighteen years, and I didn't have no trouble out of them, and they had three girls and I married all of them off, married the oldest one off twice I didn't have no problem. Only I get t ir ed. HJ: Did you ever hear from any of the men that they were having problems down a t the docks, you know with the w hite men, maybe running them away from the docks or som ething? BM: No, my husband, my first husband work down there and the only complaint he had [was] they wasn't working regularly, just when the ships come in I t made it kind of tough you know. But if they had problem we didn't bring them home, you know how some of you men do here alone, bring some your troubles home. But I can say I've s een Tampa, cause some places in here I don't know myself I t really has built up since 1910, since I've been here. I hardly know where I use to live. 1 May 20 is Emancipation Day, celebrating the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Florida.
9 HJ: You remember the a ddress, but not how to find it? BM: Yeah N ow one place I lived we ll two places they have torn the houses down. Now when I last when I use to live on Highland [Avenue] I don't know whether y'all know where that is, up between Seven th [Avenue] and over al l those big two story houses up, torn down now. And the last place I lived th ere was o n Estelle [Street] and Ashley [Street] and that's where the City Hall or City Jail was. (inaudible) And we had to move out, they moved us out. HJ: Do you remember the N AACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] or when they first came to town? BM: No I can't remember when first came to town, but I ca n remember I was a member once. HJ: Did the soldiers ever talk about the pr oblems they had in ser ving the A rmy like your boyfriend did he ever write you and tel l you any thing about wh at was happening to him in the A rmy, and stuff like that? BM: Uh uh, he come here and a while and died. I think he drink to o much. HJ: So do you have any other sisters and brothers living? BM: Oh yeah, I got one live out o n North East Bay [Street] and she lives in the family home ; then I got one live o n Twenty Fir st [Street] right off of Columbus Drive. HJ: And how old are they? BM: I can't keep up with them numbers but Baby was the one that live o n Busch [Boulevard] an d Twenty Fir st [Street] HJ: And how old is she? BM: I' m 20 years older than she is, so I'll be eighty five in November and she'll be sixty five now I am right, I'm twenty years older S ee in Janu ary she'll be sixty five HJ: Ok ay, we can talk to her; was she b orn in Tampa? BM: N o yeah she was born, but I don't know if she know anything. HJ: She might know something if she's sixty five and you're older. BM: She will be sixty five in January. HJ: And how old was your you said you had a brother living somewhere?
10 BM: No honey. HJ: Just two sisters? BM: My brothers wasn't living, but I got another sister. HJ: What's her name? BM: Geneva Van n she live in Belmont Heights. HJ: What's her add ress or her p hone number that I can call her? BM: Twenty and which you want? HJ: Give me her phone number then, I can call her and get an interview with her. BM: Al l right, 232 6173, Genev a Va n n. HJ: And you r younger sister, what's her name? BM: Vird a Lee Curr e y, Virda. HJ: Virda. BM: Did you put a V there? HJ: Uh huh, what was the last name? BM: Virda Lee Currey, last name is Currey. HJ: And her phone number? BM: Her phone is 248 3570. HJ: And you know if you talk to them tell them that I'l l be calling to do an interview, cause they probably could give me some insight to, you know maybe some of the things that you have forgotten, they probably could pick them up. BM: You want me to call them. HJ: Yeah, you can call them and I will call th em also, see if I can get their addresses, and when I can come by to visit them. BM: Cause I owe both of 'em a call. Cause when they call me today, somebody came in and I promise to call 'em back and I haven't.
11 HJ: So is there anything else you want to s hare with us today, or that can remember that you haven't shared? BM: I can't remember, I gues s when y'all leave then I'll remember. HJ: Okay if you should then I'll give you end of interview
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h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Otis R. Anthony and members of the Black History Research Project of Tampa.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (26 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (digital, PDF file)
Otis R. Anthony African Americans in Florida oral history project
Other interviewers for the Black History Research Project of Tampa were Fred Beaton, Joyce Dyer, Herbert Jones, and Shirley Smith.
Interview conducted September 13, 1978.
Bessie McGhee describes her life in Tampa during the 1910s and 1920s. Particular attention is given to Beulah Baptist Church and Central Avenue, the African American business and entertainment district.
x Social life and customs.
Anthony, Otis R.
Black History Research Project of Tampa.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Florida Studies Center.
Oral History Program.
University of South Florida.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS