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Interview of Mrs. Lucy Annette Hartsfield, June 2005
An elderly black woman sat at table in a wheelchair. Her chocolate-colored face had liver spots and several deep wrinkles, but her dark eyes had a sly, childlike glint to them. Her salt-and-pepper hair was tied back in a small bun at the base of her neck. She wore a small, mysterious smile.
Across the table from the woman sat a young white college student. He wore a white button-up shirt and black dress pants with a dark green tie. On the table between the two people sat two small microphones, one facing each person.
Reporter (turning on microphone): This is Jonathan Fillmore, interviewing Lucy Annette Hartsfield on behalf of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. (He turns to the woman and smiles.) Please, tell me – when was it that you first started noticing the Harlem Renaissance?
The woman takes a few seconds before speaking.
My momma always told me that I was going to go places. Out of my seven older brothers and sisters, she always told me that. Not that she didn't love all of them too - she just always knew that about me, I guess.
We'd always been poor, since I could remember. Our two-bedroom house on the Williamson's property was all my daddy had and all that I thought we'd ever get. Every day, all ten of us would wake up at four in the morning and work until nine at night at the cotton fields, working until our fingers bled then working some more. It wasn't the funnest, but we had to do it to 'keep our house and get food in our bellies', as Momma would tell us. I never minded the work, as long as we got to sing.
One day my papa told me that we were to move. The Williamsons' plantation was being sold to someone else, and they told us that we were to move out that day. Momma cried hard, but she wasn't crying because of sadness - she was so happy that the only way she could show it was to cry. She said that we were going to a better life; one with milk and bread every meal, and other black folks to talk with. She said to my brothers and sisters and I that we were going to school and that we were going to go to college. She said that we were going to the Big Apple - New York City.
Fillmore: How old were you when you moved?
Mrs. Hartsfield: I was six and a half years old.
Fillmore: Around when did you move?
Mrs. Hartsfield: It was August of nineteen twenty-seven. I remember that, because it was so hot I wanted to take off my skin and sit in my bones. (She laughs quietly, dwelling for a moment upon the memory before continuing.) It took us nearly ten full days to get from Alabama to New York. The Williamsons were some of the nicer white folk, and they gave us one hundred and fifty dollars to get a car and travel. That made Momma cry even more, and she kept blessing them for their kindness.
Things were completely different from Alabama in the Big Apple. Lights were flashing everywhere - there seemed to be no way for us to see everything, there was so much of it. All eight of us kids were screaming and hollering with joy and excitement.
We drove to Manhattan, where Papa sold our car for a good one hundred dollars, then walked all the way to this place Papa said that we were to live – Harlem. He’d told us stories of brave men and women that had overcome the racists with art. Langston Hughes, and Marcus Garvey, and Jacob Lawrence – all of them were Negro like me, but they had made a difference.
Fillmore: What did you see when you got to Harlem?
Mrs. Hartsfield: When we got to Harlem, it was like a whole new city inside a big one. Black folks was everywhere, like white folk had become black and black folk had become white. They didn’t look down at us or nothing, because we was Negroes, just like them. Music was playing in the streets, and there was kids my age playing skipping rope outside. I wanted to join them, but Mamma said that we was to behave and help unpack.
Fillmore: You said earlier that you got to see the Duke Ellington band. How did that come about?
Mrs. Hartsfield smiles. I remember it like it happened earlier today. My parents made a big celebration of their twentieth anniversary, so they took the lot of us out to the best club we could dress for – the Savoy Ballroom. All eight of us got in our Sunday best and...
Fillmore: I thought there were ten of you?
Mrs. Hartsfield: The eldest of my siblings, Norma and Tom, they had either gotten married or moved out to college. This was nineteen thirty-two, and I believe I was either ten or eleven.
Fillmore: Ah. I see. Please, continue. You entered the club, and...?
Mrs. Hartsfield: Every single person in that club was dancing their shoes off. The club was absolutely roaring. At first, I was shy, but the moment they started playing one of my favorite songs, I jumped right in and started dancing with a boy my age.
Fillmore: What song was that?
Mrs. Hartsfield: “It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing.” (She clears her throat.) I'll always remember how Duke Ellington introduced the song after that. I was in the very front, nearest to the band – that's where the children danced, so the band could be seen by the grown-ups. He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'This is a new song by me and my band. It's called, “Harlem Speaks”. Now, let me hear you speak!' he said, and the entire crowd cheered so loud that my ears were ringing.
Now, when they started playing, I started up Lindying with the young boy I had danced earlier with. I remember it so clearly – we didn't know each others names that night, or that we lived in the same building, or that we'd eventually marry each other. All we knew then was that song was hot, and that the club was hot, and that we were to dance until our feet couldn't be felt any more.
Fillmore: If you don't mind me asking, where is your husband now?
Mrs. Hartsfield: Oh, he's passed on nearly seven years ago, dear.
Fillmore: What did that night mean to you? Seeing Ellington and meeting that boy and everything, I mean.
Mrs. Hartsfield: That night was one of the best I’ve ever had. I met my husband that night; I saw Duke and he saw me; but most of all, I swung harder than I ever had before that night. It was the music that made my soul come alive. Without it, that night would have been just a celebration, not the life-altering thing that it is.
Fillmore: I'd like to thank you on behalf of both Schomburg Center and myself. It's been a pleasure, ma'am. (He shakes her hand.)
Mrs. Hartsfield: The pleasure was all mine, dear.
(Mr. Fillmore turns off the recorder and leaves the room, a small smile on his face. Mrs. Hartsfield is left alone in the room, smiling to herself, reminiscing.)
This interview was proposed in order to gain insight on the culture of African Americans of the swing era and during the Harlem Renaissance. Jonathan Fillmore later became a professional in African-American studies, earning his doctorate in that field. Mrs. Hartsfield passed away of pneumonia in December of 2009.
This will certify that the above work is completely original. Katie Rose Quijada