Running Away to Philadelphia

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Charles Hardy, Minnie Whitney, 1984.

 

 

Experience the curated audio indexes of Minnie Whitney's oral history interviews.

Minnie Whitney was born on January 18, 1902 in Accomack County, Virginia. Her parents were hardworking sharecroppers who raised livestock and planted a variety of crops. Despite the fact that she was a girl, Whitney’s family required that she help with the farm because her two younger brothers were not born until much later.

“I started doing that when I was about seven years old, workin’ in the farm. So when I became 10, my father hired me like a boy to work for him. That was round the clock…he said go, you go. When he say get up, we get up and go. I worked with him at everything with plowing, cultivating…”  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

Whitney performed the demanding, physical labor that typically would have been reserved for the sons of the family. Work on the farm also limited the time that she was able to spend at school. Whitney only attended school from November to January because her family would “farm with the seasons,” which included planting potatoes as early as February. Although Whitney's parents received wages for their work on the farm, blacks in the South still experienced oppression in their servility to their white landowners.

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Girls digging and picking peanuts, somewhere in Virginia, circa 1900. The daughter of a sharecropper on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Minnie Whitney spent her childhood working in parents' fields as well as for local white farmers, who would instruct her parents to pull her out of school when they wanted her labor.

“You know there was a rule they say that whatever the White man would tell them, they believed him. And if he says, ‘Well you didn't earn but $5, this year,’ they believed him… Some of them still was livin under their bondage of slavery. But... I never heard ‘em complain. If they did, I didn't know it because sometime I used to see my father look very downhearted and I would hear him tell my mother..., ‘Gee, I won’t be able to do this year what I did for the kids last year for Christmas, you know.’ Like if the crop was bad or something like that. So it was that way with all of the colored people. They was still in bondage. What I call bondage, they was still livin’ under some of the slave rules.”  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

Many of Whitney’s fondest memories from her childhood in the South come from her time spent at church on Sundays; the practice of keeping the Sabbath day holy was extremely important to her and her family. Segregation in the South dictated rules about what was considered “appropriate” behavior in public for Black members of the community. It also prevented them from entering many public places, including White churches and stores.

“Them White southern people where I came from, they were rough. If they meet you on the road and if you…was [on] a road and you had to go by, it was real small. If you was there first, you better wait 'til they come by driving a horse or something like that. It’s just something that now I’m beginning to understand how I felt about it. And I always said if I had knowed then what I know now, I guess I wouldn’t be here. Because you know if you speak out, you get hurt.”  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

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Parksley Train Station, Parksley, Virginia, circa 1915. It was from this train station that Minnie Whitney fled to Philadelphia without her parents knowledge in 1919.

By the time Whitney was in her mid-teens, she no longer wanted to work on her family’s farm, and as a result, she decided to run away from home. In May of 1919 while on her way to church with her uncle, Whitney pretended to have a headache and asked to head back home. Instead, she escaped to the nearest train station.

“[My father] heard the train blowing at Parksley, but they know there was nowhere’s else to get off, they just called it quits. Well I say, if they come there, they wouldn’t have found me anyway because when the train pull into Parksley, I went into the ladies’ room and stayed there until the train pulled off.”  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

After a day of travel, Whitney arrived in Philadelphia and headed for her cousin’s house on Warwick Street. At first, Whitney and her cousin’s wife kept her reason for being in the area a secret between the two of them, until they finally admitted to her cousin that Whitney had indeed run away from home.

I’m gonna tell you the truth,’ she said, ‘Honey, Minnie ran away.’ He said, ‘I knew it.’ ‘You can’t blame her… After all she is a woman, she don't feel like workin’ out there in that field.’ He said, ‘Yes, but I wish she had told me… Now I get to have an argument with my aunt.’”  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

Whitney began working at a Jewish-owned drug store called Egendorf’s. As she adjusted to her new life in Philadelphia, Whitney tried her best to blend in, but she soon discovered many differences between the South and her new home, including different clothing, dialects, bathing habits, dinner times, food, and new technologies, such as the telephone.

“All people that knew, well they’d look at you and they would say, ‘Oh, she's from the South,’ or ‘She’s a dummy,’ or…something like that. And the White people would look at you and they’d tell you in a minute, that ‘I know you're from down South because [of] your speech, your dialect.’ I didn’t do much talking. I listened because... I was afraid to talk because I didn’t know where to put the words. Because if you don’t have the schooling like you should, it's very hard for you to meet with people and get with people in talking and feel comfortable. I went to school five years after I left home but not here. I went in New York to school there... That’s where I got most of the little education that I did get, I was able to graduate there from the sixth grade. But still, it’s not enough. I still could use more, but now I feel at this age, it’s too hard.”  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

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Julius Rosenberg, "Galen Drug Store," October 25, 1920. Minnie Whitney worked at a drug store after first arriving in Philadelphia in 1919.

In the same year Whitney moved to Philadelphia, she married and soon bore two children. After a few years she moved back home for a short time. After returning to Philadelphia in 1924, Whitney and her husband separated. Following a court battle over custody of the children, Whitney’s mother took her son, and her daughter moved under the care of her husband’s sister. Whitney then worked for a family in suburban Wynnefield for three years.

Whitney’s domestic work proved to be challenging. The woman of the household was harsh and demanding, even threatening to fire Whitney on two separate occasions. The woman’s husband, however, came to Whitney’s rescue both times, insisting that he was in charge and that because of Whitney’s work ethic, she would stay. Both sets of Whitney’s grandparents had been slaves, and her parents had functioned under a similar bondage as sharecroppers. As a result, Whitney was sensitive to her White employers in the North treating her no better than a slave.

“I don’t mind working, but I don’t want to be droved. I said, Now, when you be driving me, and you’re going to tell me, after I done worked, and worked, and I’m tired now, and I feel that’s enough, then you going to come back and find another half a house for me to clean, or another big tub of clothes to wash. So I felt that was just like my grandmother had told me, because sometimes she said she would work, and work, and work, and when she... figured the day was end... she used to call the missus, the missus would go, and find more work.  Minnie Whitney, March 16, 1984

“When I’d taken the job, [the woman at the employment office] says, ‘I’m going to give you this job…but you’re not going to stay with the woman.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Nobody can stay with her [or] work with her…she’s just that type.’ So I says, ‘All right…. Give it to me. I’ll try it. I went back one day to finish paying the... employment agent for the job, and some of them women was sitting there, says, Is you still on that job? I said, Yes. Said, She ain’t killed you yet? I said, No...We get along very good...She’s mean, but I can be as mean as she is sometime.... I’m going to do what she tells me to do, but I’m not going to let her push me around… The onlyest time that I backed up on what she told me to do was one Sunday morning.... She told me that Sunday morning, she wanted me to scrub the bathroom, and I had did it on Saturday. I told her, I says, I don’t scrub nobody’s floor on Sunday...That’s my Sabbath. ... So she grabs the bucket, and slams it down in front of me. So I took the bucket, and kicked it over the side, and come on downstairs. So she followed me downstairs... I just wanted her to fire me. So she didn’t. Her husband come in. He rescued me again. But see, I was young. And you know, when you’re young, and you’ve been... under pressure... you feel that now that slavery’s over, why should you still have to be pressured. I mean, we all is one. It’s... only a difference in the skin. Why do I have to do something that I don’t want to do on a Sunday? Any day during the week, I wouldn’t care if she’d tell me to scrub the bathroom three times a day. I’d do it. But Sunday is my Sabbath. I had never scrubbed a bathroom on Sunday in my life.”  Minnie Whitney, March 20, 1984

In 1929, Whitney moved from Philadelphia to New York in search of better pay. No longer seeking employment in a private home, she turned to "public work" and dedicated long hours every day to a hand laundry business, eventually moving up to manager. Whitney remained in New York until 1972, then moved back to Philadelphia where she stayed until her death on December 10, 1995.

Running Away to Philadelphia