THE BESTSELLING book Roots , Alex Haley's historical reconstruction of how his family came from relative freedom in Africa to certain slavery in America, and then from slavery to relative freedom today, has spurred many black Americans to think about and search out their own roots.
A few years ago most blacks were either ashamed or afraid to tell the story of their struggle for survival against enormous odds. Their reticence derived in part from the frequent ugliness of their stories.
On these four pages are the true stories of eight Washingtonians who not only survived exploitation but went on to achieve prominence in a world dominated by whites.
Mother Scott, who was born Esther May Prentiss back in Warren County, Mississippi, in 1893, is a Washington legend. Long an activist at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, she plays the guitar and sings songs of her own composition there, at various Washington nightspots and for children in the city's Summer in the Parks program.
She remembers well her African grandfather telling her about his roots. "When he lived in Africa his name was Kox," she says. "That (he and his brother) were captured by the people over there. The slave traders were going around, enticing them to a special meeting and them they would kidnap them. Then they took them to the boat - can you imagine, the boat was called the Mayflower! They were put in the hull, packed like sardines. They were sold at auction in Virginia. My grandfather was sold to a man named Prentiss, and his name was Monroe Prentiss because he had to have the same name as his master. Over there in Africa he was a blacksmith and over here in America he was a blacksmith too. I used to blow a bellows on the anvils and plow points for him.
"My grandmother, Agnes Jane Garrett, looked just like a white woman. In fact, I think her father was white, but her mother was an African who took up weaving. Well, they had eleven sons and four daughters and my mother was born in 1867 after they got their freedom. She was a cook and her name was Mary Eliza Prentiss. She was the mistress at one time of a white man named Sam Brown from Eagle Lake , Mississippi. They always said he was the black sheep of his family because he had two or three sets of children by different black women. I was one of those children.
"By the time I was born, a man named Walter Langston Polk had bought the Prentiss farm. Everybody down there [all the whites] heated Mr. Polk. They all called him a damn Yankee because he was good to his blacks. In fact, they burned down his cotton gin in 1899, I can remember it. Of course, all he did was feed them and give them more to eat and let them sell their own cotton. And the houses on his place were fixed up better than anywhere else. All the others only had dirt floors and benches. Still, we were living in mud puddles - it's pitiful to think about. But after a long time, Mr. Polk divided up his land and let the blacks buy 100 acres."
Mother Scott started working for the Polks when she was five years old. "I was a water carrier and we were getting $1.14 a week and we worked from 'can' to 'can't' [from when you can see until when you can't]." Later, she says, "I had to sharecrop. I didn't get enough education to pass third grade. I learned to read and write through the children I took care of."
She took care of children in the Polk family for twenty-seven years, and then was sent to take care of their relatives in Baltimore. Finally she came to Washington