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Bernice Johnson Oral History Interview, 1993

Oregon State University
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STUDENT 1: We're here with Mrs. Johnson. Let me start off with this: where did you live before you came to Eugene, and why did you leave to come here?

BERNICE JOHNSON: I lived in Atlanta, Georgia. I came here with my husband. He worked for the SP [Southern Pacific] Railroad.

STUDENT 2: What kind of jobs were there for African Americans in this town?

BJ: Well, all was just for everybody worked for the Southern Pacific, that's the name of the company.

S1: How did you feel when you came here?

BJ: I didn't like it.

S1: How were you and your family treated when you came here?

BJ: Well, when I first came here I was just, kind of stayed in. We had a place 00:01:00that we stayed on the property for the Southern Pacific at first. I guess I'm doing right?

S2: When you moved here was there a lot of racism?

BJ: Yes there was.

S2: Can you tell us about the laws and how Eugene was in those days?

BJ: Well the laws were, they weren't really for the black. They was prejudiced, too.

S1: When you moved here, where did you live in the Southern Pacific? Like what?

BJ: Yeah, the Southern Pacific.

S1: Was there an African American community here?

BJ: It was like I said that maybe I live here and one lived down the street a 00:02:00little ways. They didn't have them all close together, the black. Then they had Mexicans, races like that.

S2: How many black people were here then?

BJ: Well, Mrs. Washington and a man named John Wadd [?] and there was a younger man, his name Gordon. I didn't know his last name. All I know is Gordon. That was all the black I saw here when I first came here.

S1: How was it to raise kids here?

BJ: It was pretty hard raising kids here. I got along with people and stuff. If we can get along, we just didn't associate with them.


S1: Do you remember anything about what happened with them in school or anything?

BJ: Yeah, they was called, they had the name Negro, niggers and like that. The kids came home I told them don't try to fight, you know, and stuff. Try to get along with them the best they could. I had to go to school a couple of times. One of the teachers would grab one of my sons and rip his shirt off like that. Then we got in with that. After that I didn't have no trouble out of them because I told them I was going to beat them. I said, keep your hands of black kids.

S2: How many kids do you have?

BJ: I have 10. My daughter passed away in '89. I got 9 sons and I had one daughter.


S2: How many grandchildren do you have?

BJ: Oh, 26 grandkids and 18 great-grandkids.

S1: What did you do for fun?

BJ: Well, for fun for me I worked and went to church [laughs]. That was my fun. Just stay home and raise the kids.

S2: Did you ever have family gatherings?

BJ: Oh, yes, we did. Had some big ones. We had some here in the back yard once. We had another one out to the park. It was so many people, such a large family, couldn't have them all here. We had quite a bit.

S1: You say you like to cook, I was wondering do you have any special foods you 00:05:00like? Can you share some recipes with us?

BJ: Yeah, I'll share some with you, whatever you like to cook and what you want to cook.

S2: Can you tell us about some of the foods that you liked to eat?

BJ: Collard greens, pinto beans, different food like that. Cauliflower, have salads. Chicken. Fish. You know, stuff. Make sweet potato pies and cakes and fix all that.

S2: What kind of music did you listen to? BJ: I listened to the radio. They didn't have, you know like they have now, they had radios. You had to listen to 00:06:00everything on the radio when I was coming up. No TVs. Nothing but the radio and whatever you hear on that that's what you listened to. I listened to Fat Domino and what's the other one's name? He used to blow the bugle. I forget his name. He died. What was that man's name?

S1: Dizzy Gillespie?

BJ: I forget the name because he died. When he blew the bugle, his mouth gets real big. It puffed out.

S1 and S2: Was it Dizzy Gillespie?

BJ: Was it Louis Armstrong? Might have been. I don't know. It was one of them 00:07:00because he could really blow the horn.

S1: How about the clothes in those days?

BJ: Oh, [laughs] people wore all kinds of crazy-looking clothes. There were some, I mean I almost wore the same thing now that you guys wear, like the baggy pants and stuff. Maidens had longer dresses and stuff on, though. They didn't wear short dresses like they do now. They wore pretty nice things, but some of the clothes I see people wear now was in style with what they were wearing back then. They are wearing the same thing that they used to wear then.

S2: What did the black community do together?

BJ: Around here? Well, they all had separate parts. They squared off to each other, scared off to their own self. They weren't together. They wasn't. Like 00:08:00West 11 church, I've never been there. Never been out there because I always went to the First Baptist. It was closer for me and they come and pick me up, so I didn't have a car or nothing so I had to take it. Whoever picked me up, that's where I went. If they have gatherings or something like that, we went to the meetings, you know if they have some kind of meeting or something. If they invited you, you'd go then.

S1: Did you go through the Depression years here?

BJ: The Depression here?

S1: Yeah, did you go through the Depression here?

BJ: I don't know if I was that old [laughs]. What was that in the '20s?

S1: Um, I'm not sure.

BJ: [Laughs] I was born in the '20s, but I was born in 1922. I was small. I didn't know anything about it. Some depression.

S2: What was your family's experience with the wars?


BJ: Oh, I had 2 sons in the service: two in the Air Force and my ex-husband, he was in the Army. My one son stayed in for 20 years, another stayed in 14. My ex-husband, he got out, I don't know, he stayed in there for a while.

S1: What books did you read?

BJ: I always liked to read geography, stuff like that. Arithmetic. They had those books you can read. They were old books. I don't think they have those here now. I always wanted to be a psychologist, but I didn't go to school high enough to be that.


S2: Did the African American community organize to change anything in Eugene?

BJ: Yeah. They had, what was the black man's name? Deberry, or something was his name. What was his first name? All I know is his last name was [Clyde] Deberry. They had quite a bit around here in Eugene helping the black. Then Mrs. Reynolds and he came in last. He wasn't here when I was here, when I came here.

S1: Have you seen a change in Eugene from those days?

BJ: There have been lots of changes.

S2: What do you think about the younger generation?

BJ: They're coming on now, the ones that, like you guys' age?


S1: Yeah.

BJ: Well, I like to see you get a college education and don't start on the drugs, you know like lots of kids do and make something out of yourself. Go to college.

S1: Do you have any heroes nowadays?

BJ: Any what?

S1: Do you have any heroes nowadays?

BJ: I don't understand what you said.

S1: Do you have any heroes nowadays?

BJ: No [laughs]. I don't need to be lying. I don't have any heroes.

S2: If you have a message for young people, what would it be?

BJ: Like I said, go to school and get an education. That's the main thing all kids should do. You want to make something out of yourself. I know I had a hard 00:12:00time raising my kids. I sent them all to school. They went to college. If they went to college, if they didn't make anything out themselves it wasn't my fault. But they all did get an education.

S1: Is there any stories you'd like to tell us?

BJ: Too long [laughs]. You mean like what in life I went through?

S2: You can go and tell your story if you want.

S1: Tell any story. We have plenty of time.

S2: We have plenty of tape.

BJ: You got plenty of tape... well, I could keep you here until 5:00 [laughs]. Anyway, well, this won't be a story. This will be the truth. We went through quite a bit, like we're going through. You had white come in, you walked the street, they started saying, "nigger this," and "nigger that." So, one day they 00:13:00was calling me nigger and me and my friend were walking the street and so I had taken it and walked across the street and we were going to have a big battle. I just turned around and walked away because I didn't want trouble. One time it was a lady, no I won't tell these kids that-this is for something else. It wouldn't be right to tell you guys that. Something happened in the family, and so it's not for kids to listen to that. Anyway, we had, well al the black around here they get along together. It's nice. We can all share things together.

Like I said, I never did go around-I worked all the time. I had to work to take care of all my kids. I didn't go nowhere but to work and back home and see that 00:14:00they eat and make them work in the house and clean house. They better have it clean when I come home or they know they get a big spanking. Each one had a chore to do. One did the cooking. One cleaned and one washed the dishes. One washed clothes. And the house better be clean. I better not see a spot on the floor or they would get it, you know? They worked with me. Since I'm retired, they help me. I don't work anymore. Each one gives me a little money and stuff to help me. One son called me the other day, he said he really appreciates what I did for him when he was younger. He's a counselor in Portland. They all worked together with me.

S2: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us that happened to you?

BJ: Well, lots of stuff. Like, I got a call today. I don't want to talk about 00:15:00it. It got me a little upset so I won't talk about this. I mean, my son raised 8 kids and he had them for a long time and when the girls got up 16 and 10 and 8, he even had them all this time. So, he let them go over to the mother's house and stay on the weekend. Now, I just got the call they are trying to say that he did something to them and they got him in jail. It's one of those things. That was the DA calling me to talk to me about that. They write nice to me, because see I worked for all these judges and district attorney and all. I worked for Spencer, [unclear], all those peoples. I wish I didn't have to hear that because 00:16:00I got a little upset and I can't think right now like I want to. It's just one of those deals today. They just put him in jail so I have to go down there after a while and see about him.

S1: About your triplets, I heard that they were one of the first?

BJ: Oh yeah, the first, they were the second set born here in Eugene. The peoples had the first set, whoever it was, they died. But mine lived. They got all the publicity. I got a whole bunch of papers I wish I could have had taken out, but I got them stored in the attic. Next time. I mean, maybe some time I can give them to [unclear] and let him bring them up there to see them. We got lots of publicity on that.


S2: [Phone rings] Can you tell us about some changes in Eugene?

BJ: Things changed quite a bit now. It was pretty rough. They did lots of change in here. Better than what it was when I came here. You just go out the door and walk somewhere you're scared to go too far because you're scared somebody might knock you in the head and all they do is they say, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." You know? "There go a nigger," "There go a-". You get tired of hearing all that stuff. That's what we went through. We had to.

S1: Can you tell us about some of the laws? When you said the change in Eugene laws, I was wondering can you tell us about some of them?

BJ: Oh they changed quite a bit in what there was, like the policeman's and stuff? They used to try to, they was really rough on black peoples. They used to put the handcuffs on them real tight and they kick them when they get in the 00:18:00car. What I hear people used to say is call them niggers and stuff. I don't know. That's what I heard. That was told to me. As far as going to jail and dealing with something like that, I never had to deal with them like that. I don't know.

S2: Can you tell us about some of the stereotypes.

BJ: You mean music?

S2: Stereotypes, like black people were known for this and Indians are known for such-and-such, like that? Back in those days?

BJ: I could say I don't remember too much of that. You mean like what the Indians did and what the black did? How did they live?

S1: Like they think all black people might-


BJ: Oh, they think all black peoples do the same thing? Yeah. They always, if you when they see you they think you're the same. If you did something and he didn't do nothing and they think you, I mean he the one that did it, not you. That's the way they used to think. You get in trouble and they'll go pick him up and say he did it. You be the one that did it, like stealing or something. You won't know nothing about it, and they'll take-oh yeah, you're going to jail.

S1: Did they ever tell you that all black people stole and all black people should be in jail or anything like that?

BJ: Yeah, and they'd say all the niggers need to go back where they come from. They had a bad nigger this, nigger that. You know.


S2: I'm not sure but was it Mrs. Washington who had the boarding house?

BJ: Yeah, she had a boarding house.

S2: Did you ever have anything to do with that?

BJ: She had that when I met her. She lived on West 6th, you know where the Chinese place down on West 6th? Well that's where her house was, right there. That's where she lived. She had a boarding house there.

S1: Were there many boarding houses?

BJ: That was the only black.

S2: Did you ever stay there?

BJ: Huh-uh [No]. No, I never did. I just used to go visit her. She was a nice lady.

S1: Did Mrs. Mims have one?

BJ: Mrs. Mims had this house right there facing High Street and she bought that, they bought that property, oh I was here a long time before Mrs. Mims ever 00:21:00thought about coming here. They bought that place up there on High Street. That's kind of like a boarding house. Used to rent rooms out to different peoples. It's a house and they had about six rooms in it and they'd rent each one and then everybody had to cook on the same stove in the house. She had one but Mrs. Washington had hers first. Those are the two black I know had one here. Hold on, the Reynolds had a little nightclub or something across the bridge, Ferry Street Bridge over there. They called it having a nightclub and they had a juke box and all that in there. That's right, they did that too. It wasn't a place where people stayed but they had where they could dance and have fun. They had to soon cut that out.


S1: Was there a certain person that was a major help to the black community at all. If not-

BJ: What?

S1: Was there a certain person that was a major help to the black community or if not do you know any people of the black community?

BJ: That helped for the black?

S1: Yeah.

BJ: Like I said, this man-I know his name is Deberry but he isn't here anymore. He was the one that tried to help the black. It was advancement for the colored peoples. Is that what they called it? That's what it was, advanced something for the black. His name was Clyde Deberry. That was his name. Clyde Deberry.


S2: Around what time period was it that Eugene started changing like in racism and stuff?

BJ: Some part in the '70s. I want to tell you something. They had this black man he worked for the railroad but he worked on the train. He had married this white girl. They had taken and killed this guy because they didn't want him to marry their daughter. So, he got killed. They said that he died, but I think what happened was they killed him like everybody say. The way he was disfigured and everything I know somebody killed him.

S1: What did they do to him?

BJ: They cut his head off and legs and everything else. They killed him. So, 00:24:00they seemed to think that it was the girl's parents.

S1: They said he died.

BJ: They found half his body in the river down there, in the river over there.

S2: Do you think there's still a lot of racism in Eugene today?

BJ: There's some, but not like it was unless some of them that's coming in from different places. It's getting a little better.

S1: When the interview's done I wanted to know if maybe you could show us some of your pictures?

BJ: My pictures? You mean these pictures here?

S1: Yeah.

BJ: Okay.

S2: Thanks for letting us interview you and we had a good time.

BJ: I hope everything turns out right.


S1: That's all that you wanted to share with the stories?

BJ: Yeah, I guess so. Sometime come back again. When you guys, just come back and come and come and sometime I'll fix you guys a dinner or something. I'll show you how to make snacks, different things like that.

S1: Thanks for your time.

BJ: Yeah. [Shift to photographs]

BJ: .... and that's Terry [photograph of triplets]. That's Jerry [unclear] he was bald-headed there. That's his family. Perry and Terry, there and me and [unclear].

S2: Who's that right there?

BJ: Who's this?

S2: Yeah.

BJ: That's my niece and that's her daughter.


S1: Oh, geeze. There's nothing being filmed because the microphone's not hooked up to the camera.

S2: There's sound right here.

BJ: That's Savon's mother. That's me and that's my daughter-in-law and that's Savon's grandmother and that's his uncle.

S2: Who's that right there?

BJ: Up here?

S2: Uh-huh.

BJ: That's my mother.

S2: Right here.

BJ: Where? Oh, that's my grandson, Chris. These are my grandkids. That's my granddaughter. That's my granddaughter there. That's Tammy. [Recording skips] ...grandkids. All except that's me and my niece.

S1: In the corner?

BJ: Up here. Want me to take it down? That's her right over there, too, on the wall.

S1: Over here?

BJ: Mm-mm.

S2: Right here?

BJ: Yeah, that's my daughter.

S2: That's a good shot of your daughter.

BJ: You don't have to. You know, if you don't want to.


S2: It stopped recording when you did that.

S1: This is her daughter.

BJ: Oh, that's when she was about 17. That's David up there.

STUDENT 3: What I'd like to do is get a picture of you on the front porch of your house.

BJ: Okay.

S3: We're getting ready to leave.