"Yessir, I'm here to tell you I worked hard," said 81-year old Amanda Nelson. "That's all I've ever known is work hard and work don't come hard to me now."
From 1916 until 1952, Nelson and her husband were sharecroppers in St. Mary's County, Md. She would rise, usually, before dawn to milk four cows for the landlord and his wife, and sometimes I'd be at the door before she get out the bed."
Then, she told an attentive audience of oral history buffs at the Festival of American Folklife yesterday, she would fix breakfast for her own family, and "start my pot to boiling" for dinner, the noontime meal. Dinner underway, Mrs. Nelson and her husband would head out to the field, to tend the corn, tobacco or wheat.
"Many times the field would be close to the house," she explained, "and I could hear her crying from the field. I went to the spring to get a pail of water."
After dinner, "I'd go on back to the field . . . and then I'd go to the house and finish getting my supper in order. And then my mother would come in after supper and my husband and I would go into the field and set up corn." On other nights, there would be washing to do that could last into the early hours of the next morning.
"If a sharecropper made $100 in a whole year, he do good," said 84-year-old Luther Stuckey, a former sharecropper on a tobacco farm in South Carolina.
"My father was sold on the slave market in South Carolina and my mother was sold on the slave market," siad Stuckley. "And when they sold my mother they pulled her skirt up above her shoulders to show her legs was built strong . . . That was the last my grandfather ever saw of her."
After Stuckley's father died, the family fell $1,100 into debt. "That's when they wanted to put that ball and chain on me and put me on the chain gang." Stuckley moved to Maryland to avoid that fate, he said, but later managed to pay the debt from earnings as a laborer.
Jammed into an alcove of the Museum of History and Technology, six former sharecroppers recalled the pleasures and pains of an outmoded way of life yesterday - and the diverse store of forgotten skills needed to sustain a household with scarcely any cash income.
"I remember my mother took a couple of my father's old pair of pants that he was wearing and some cotton from the cotton gin and made something to sleep on," said Stuckey, whose deep, precise voice occasionally seemed to overwhelm the sound system.
Several participants waged a vigorous debate over the proper way to prepare rabbit, 'possum and squirrel. One school argued for boiling the animal in its skin, while the others seemed outraged at the very thought.
When 88-year-old Clem Dyson was in the fifth grade, his father hired him out to do household chores for a rich white woman - for $40 total salary from March until Christmas. "I left her one day," said Dyson. She called me "Come little nigger boy!" I didn't like that."
But there was no explaining the problem to Dyson's father. "He told me to go on back. He hadn't collected his money yet."
"Growing tobacco is a whole lot of work," said Dyson. "And I worked all my life for nothing. My father was a sharecropper and the part that he got was one third and the landlord got two thirds. He farmed until he was disabled, and I raised my family on the farm. Children all grown and all gone."
Dyson was an active participant in one of the burial societies founded by rural blacks after the Civil War - the only form of life insurance for many sharecroppers. "If a man was (in the) society, for a cash deal we could bury him for $25 but if he wasn't society if would cost him $30," Dyson recalled.
In South Carolina, Stuckey interjected, "most of the time when someone died, if he had a home, that was the end of it - because the undertaker would get a mortgage on the home to pay for the funeral."
The Folklife Festival drew hefty crowds in the brisk autumn weather yesterday. The festival ends today.