His Grandma Mattie survived slavery

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 04:22 PM

The life of Horace Johnson has come as full circle as any life could. In 1850, his grandmother was born into slavery. In 1969, Johnson picketed and boycotted and was a major player in the civil rights movement in Hillsborough. Twenty years after that, he became mayor.

Johnson, 81, was born in Alabama. His grandmother was “half slave and half free” he said, with a Native American mother and a father who was the white plantation owner. Johnson has a black-and-white photograph of the light skinned woman with light hair and blue eyes. He found out about his grandmother’s childhood as a child himself.

One day Johnson was out playing marbles in the dirt and his grandmother Mattie admonished him for getting so dirty.

“I said, ‘Grandma, weren’t you a little girl?’ She said, ‘I had to look over the master’s children.’ Her half brother and sister,” Johnson said. She told him that even her father, her master, was tough on her. She hugged Johnson real tight and said, “I prayed to the Lord that I would be free.” And she was, eventually.

It’s hard to believe that someone living today would have one degree of separation from someone who lived through slavery, and yet it is so. Perhaps our nation’s long ago history is not so long ago after all. When I asked in a previous column for your civil rights stories, I did not expect to find one with roots so far back. Oh, they have roots that far back, but to talk with someone who has touched those roots, been hugged by those roots. It’s Black History Month, and I’ll continue to share your stories of the movement – and before the movement – as long as you share them with me.

Johnson’s Grandma Mattie died in her 90s.

“She was telling me this in the 1930s,” he said. “She passed her survival skills down to me.” Johnson’s Aunt Bessie filled him in on other details about slavery times, and how they got back at the plantation owners. Let’s just say it involved the well and the kitchen.

“They had their subtle ways of fighting back…We couldn’t fight back but had subtle ways to get you,” he said.

Slavery wasn’t something discussed often, as people who survive tragedy and terrorism don’t necessarily want to talk about it. Johnson was the youngest of 13 kids, with some of his siblings grown up by the time he came along to his parents, who were in their late 40s when he was born. They called him “the last pea in the dish.” He grew up in a small Alabama town near the Florida and Georgia line, and, Johnson told me, “believe it or not, in my hometown I was not discriminated against.”

That white great-grandfather was a judge, and his grandmother’s half-brothers were lawyers. Every now and then he’d hear someone say “That’s one them,” meaning he was a descendant of the judge. But Johnson didn’t know that until his grandmother told him that day he got dirty playing. His dad had a good job as a railroad hand and they were one of the first families who had electric lights and a radio. Plus his dad had both a car and a truck, Johnson said. His parents used their electricity to light their backyard so all the African American kids had somewhere to play. Remember that when I continue to tell you about Horace Johnson next Sunday, after he grew up.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at dvaughan@heraldsun.com; 919-419-6563. Follow on Twitter: @dawnbvaughan.