Life

“The First Time I Saw a Vision I Was a Child in a Cotton Field”

Meet Gertrude Johnson Howard, 82, from Phoenix.

Gertrude Johnson Howard.
82 year old Gertrude Johnson Howard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and courtesy of Gertrude Johnson Howard.

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person”—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Christina Cauterucci: What’s your very first memory?

Gertrude Johnson Howard: I was 3 years old on a big plantation, and my mommy and daddy still hadn’t separated. And I saw all these white men, and they had on uniforms, and they had long rifles. And I was scared to death. We lived close to the county road, and I was outside playing. I ran in the house and told my mom, and the people got out of their cars and they came to the door. And they asked my momma, “Is John William there?” The sheriff was looking for John William, he had killed a man on the plantation. I was just shaking, just like somebody having a seizure. And my mother was scared, too, ’cause you could take a gun and run my mother from here to Tucson.

What was your childhood like?

I used to pick 300 pounds of cotton a day on the plantation [in Autauga County, Alabama,] five days and then till noon on Saturday. I was a fast worker, I was always a hyper child. Nowadays they’d give me medication, but those days, they’d just work you. I could carry 50 pounds of cotton on my shoulders in those days. Most times when we got paid, they’d just tell us we broke even. The only money we got was the little money we got when we sold eggs or picked berries.

Gertrude Johnson Howard.
Gertrude, on the left, in 1947.
Courtesy of Gertrude Johnson Howard.

When you rented a house, you could work on whatever plantation you wanted to go on. But renting houses were scarce, because when you lived on a plantation, Christina, you didn’t pay rent. We didn’t have electricity at all when I was growing up on that plantation, and no inside plumbing. You just had a house with a chimney for a cookstove, and a chimney in the middle of the house where we made fire to keep warm in the wintertime. I don’t remember us having blankets too much. The bed you were sleeping in, you had corn shucks. You know corn shucks, like you go to the store and have you some boiled corn, and you take the green things off? Well in the South they get dry in the fall, so we’d take the shucks off there—we’d call them shucks, it’s husks, I guess, the proper name—and mix it with cotton, put it in a mattress, and that’s what we slept on.

How many times have you been in love in your life?

[Laughs.] That’s a funny joke right there. I think I’ve been in love a few times, but I don’t do love like some people do.

What do you mean?

I thought I was in love with my husband, but I’m gonna tell you the truth. Before I was married, I said I always looked forward to it, because they said if you had a husband, he’d take you out of the country and take you to the city and everything. That’s what I had in mind more than thinking about being in love with him. But I guess I was in love with him because I married him, after I had gotten pregnant. And I wasn’t all that crazy about sex, but I knew that went along with the deal. I married him when I was 16 and he was 19.

After my husband died, I guess I fell in love with another person. But Christina, I’m a very peculiar person about things like that. I think sometimes when you’re raised in a broken home and all, you don’t have the love I hear people talk about. I thought I was in love with Grady, and he thought he was in love with me. He was nice, we were Christian people, we didn’t go in and out of beds and stuff like that. We’d go on trips and I’d stay in my room and he’d stay in his room. But then after I married him, I found out he was a controller. He didn’t want me to talk to people. And I had told him before we got married that I was a people’s person and people would take a liking to me.

And I just made up in my mind I wasn’t gonna stay with this man. We had a nice big four-bedroom house, done paid cash for it and everything. But you know what? It didn’t mean one thing to me ’cause I was raised poor, and didn’t have nothing no way. So having a great big nice house like that with carpet on the floor and about $9,000 worth of furniture—that stuff didn’t mean anything to me if I didn’t have my freedom to talk to people. So that marriage ended in divorce.

How do you spend your time nowadays?

Let me tell you this. I’m in the process of trying to get a book wrote. I hope to get that done before I leave Planet Earth.

What is the book about?

I’m going to name it Life Is a Vision. You’ve heard of visions, haven’t you? I’m not going to ask you whether you believe in them or not, that’s your business. The first time I saw a vision I was a child in a cotton field—I was about 9 or 10 years old, and we were three children chopping cotton on a cotton row. I saw this person flying through the sky and where the arms were, it was wings. It flew down, this person, and it just stood on its feet and stood right in front of me, and I fainted.

I [also] have a letter-writing ministry. I love it, I’ve been at it over 50 years. If you give me your address and stuff, I’ll write you a letter. I used to turn around about six letters a week. I write one young man in prison, because I was a good friend of his mother’s in Ohio, and he got sent to prison and then his mother died. I write my grandson that’s in prison. And I go to a nursing home on Tuesdays, we have a church service. You ain’t never been to a church service until you go to a Pentecostal black church service. And I go to this other church, they are all Hispanics, most of ’em are. But they preach in English and Spanish. I go to their senior group, and I’ll take somebody to the store or to go get their food box or whatever. I go to see a shut-in lady who’s got dementia, I try to go see her once a week.

I’ll go to a movie once in a while. I like to go see some movies, but I don’t have nobody to go to the movies with because most of my friends are Pentecostal folks, and they don’t believe in going to the movies.

What’s one of the best movies you’ve seen recently?

I saw this movie called War Room, and there was a black lady. When I come out of there, all the people started saying, “Oh you look like that lady in the movie!” And let me tell you what: I wrote those people. I had my daughter get those men’s names, two white guys that wrote it. And I wrote them and told them I had a story to tell them if they wanted to make a movie. It took them a long time, but they finally wrote me back and told me they didn’t do that.

You sound busy!

I have a lot of interests. I’m an activist to a certain extent about certain things. I got a friend, this friend I visit with dementia, she gets this black paper in Phoenix, so she saves it for me, and I try to keep up with what the black folks are doing and all. My mother said if I’d never got out of the South, they probably would have killed me down there. She wouldn’t let me march. We left Alabama in ’56, you know, and Emmett Till got killed in ’55. And we knew we had to get out from down there.

But I have enough to keep me busy, Christina. If you come in my house, I got all these books. I got a library here at my house almost. I like Billy Graham, I’ve been watching him off and on for years. He lived what he preached. He wouldn’t even be on an elevator with a woman by himself. That’s something, ain’t it?

Who’s the first person you voted for?

I can’t even remember. But I was in Ohio and I was 21 years old. That’s the first place I registered to vote. I have voted in every election that I could vote in since I was 21 years old, because my daddy could not read or write. I don’t know when I learned to read and write, Christina. I can’t print, but I write what they call cursive. I went to school a little bit, until I got old enough to pick cotton. I finished eighth grade, and I was promoted to the ninth, but never showed up. When I found out my daddy couldn’t even read his name—I didn’t know until I was a grown person, and I was just devastated.

So when I got to Ohio that’s the first thing I did: I registered to vote. And that’s the first thing I did when I got to Arizona. I registered to vote and I got a library card. And I pack in my purse, every day, I’ve got my voting card, I’ve got my library card, and I’ve got my insurance card.

Who’s your favorite person you’ve voted for?

John F. Kennedy. I’m a registered Democrat, I’ll tell you that. I hope I won’t insult you. But I’m a registered Democrat out here in this Goldwater state. This is a Republican state I’m in, but I didn’t know that when I came here. I voted for Clinton. I liked him. He’s a white man, but he acts like black folks. He blows that trumpet or whatever that thing is he blows. I did probably vote for a few Republicans if I thought their agenda was gonna try to help us out. I got two sisters, and they are not political at all. They just leave everything for Jesus. “Jesus is gonna do this, Jesus is gonna … ” And I say, “Jesus will only do what we can’t do for ourselves.”

Gertrude Johnson Howard.
Gertrude Johnson Howard in the 1970s.
Courtesy of Gertrude Johnson Howard.

And Barack Obama—I heard him speak at the Democratic convention, and I lost my mind. I just got wild. I was in Arizona. I called my niece in Chicago, and I said, “Who is this man from Chicago? That’s the smartest black man I’ve ever heard in my life.” When I heard that man speak, I jumped up on my couch and I stood up, and heard something in my bosom say, “Watch him.” That’s all it said. It’s called an omen.

I wrote President Obama, and he wrote me back, too. I told him I was upset about these people who haven’t done nothing that much and they keep ’em in prison, and when they take ’em out, I think they should restore their voting rights. They haven’t killed nobody or anything like that.

What was your favorite age?

I think I’d say 28. I had my 10th baby when I was 28 years old.

You have 10 kids?

[Laughs.] No, I lost a lot of them. They were miscarriages, Christina. We raised six children to adults. But I promised myself when that 10th baby was born I was not gonna have another baby. My husband, he didn’t believe in birth control, because he felt like if we started using birth control then soon there wouldn’t be any black people and they’d put us back in slavery again. So every time you had sex, he wanted you to have a baby. I made up my mind if he wanted another baby he was gonna have it himself.

My husband wouldn’t sign the papers [to get birth control]—back then, the husband had to sign the paper for you. And I had five other children and a mother and a mother-in-law. I bet I’m the only person you’ve ever talked to who lived in the house with her mother and her mother-in-law at the same time. I told my husband, “I’m not coming home unless you sign those papers.” And he finally decided, “Give me the ol’ papers, I guess I’ll sign them.” So needless to say I came home, but only after the doctor done tied my tubes.

What advice would you give your younger self now?

I would have stuck it out and stayed in school, because when I told my teacher I wouldn’t be back because I was getting married that summer, she said, “Oh Gertrude, I’d hate for you to get married. You’re such a bright child.” She didn’t mean my skin was light, ’cause I’m a dark-skinned person. But she said I’d have been an asset to the world if I had went on to school. But if I’d have known then what I know now, I’d have fought through and gotten me a college education and been somebody, out there fighting like Angela, like some of these other “crazy black folks,” they called us.

It still seems like you’ve done so much.

Well, I worked two jobs and sent my kids to school. My oldest daughter, she was a bookworm like me. If I was walking along the road, Christina—if a newspaper done blown off a truck or something like that, since we didn’t have any reading material or nothing but the Bible, I’d pick up that newspaper and fold that up and put it in my bosom and try to read it when I got home. I was just a reading nut.

What makes you happiest these days?

Just to be alive, and I live off nothing but a Social Security check. It don’t take much to make me happy. I’m not a steak-eater, I never did like steak. But one of the things that makes me happy, every now and again, is somebody gives me a little bit of money and I take myself to the restaurant get me some oysters. Somebody introduced me to them fried oysters—you know, you just put ’em in there and deep fry ’em til they done inside. They look like them little McNuggets you get at the McDonalds.

What was the happiest day of your life?

I done had a lot of happy days. I was happy when my granddaughter, the one that I depend on a lot, she was the first child of Peoria High School in 25 years to get a scholarship to Yale. Now that was happy. When I walked them halls of Yale out there in Connecticut, Christina, you thought I was graduating from Yale. I was so happy.

I got grandchildren—I think last count it was 27. And fiftysomething great-grandkids now.

How are you unlike other people your age?

I’m still driving in the daytime. I just quit riding my bicycle about a year ago. [My doctor] told me don’t ride that bicycle ’cause he was scared I was gonna fall. I done declared that I’m not gonna have that dementia. So for that, you got to read. I got all kinds of books here laying on this table right now.

What books are on there?

I got the Bible on here. I got I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. You know who that’s by. I got Billy Graham here, Just As I Am. I got New Times, that’s a paper that’s kind of political. I ain’t never read it yet, but I will get it read. I got the 101 Wisdom Keys by Mike somebody. I have two bird books here. I forgot to tell you that I’m a bird lady. When I hear one singing and I don’t pick up the song right away and know what it is, I run here and get the bird book. And the rest here is obituaries.

Do you think about death?

I do. I think about death, because you know that’s one thing we all share, Christina. I try to have my house in order, both spiritually and mentally. I got my funeral already paid for. I got my grave already paid for. I’m not afraid of death. I pray at least twice a day. I got a pillow in there, I still get down on my knees. Speaking of how I’m different from the average old people: They don’t get down on their knees. My daughter is 63 years old and she lays in her bed and prays. I’m not gonna say there’s no 82-year-old people who get down on their knees, but the ones I know, if they get down there, they have to get a bulldozer to come get ’em back up.

Gertrude Johnson Howard.
Gertrude Johnson Howard in 1979.
Courtesy of Gertrude Johnson Howard.

We’ve all got to die. I just don’t want to be no burden. I picked my casket out, and I got my dress hanging in the closet, and my daughter knows exactly where it is. And if they don’t like that dress, they can buy me another one. At one time I was going to be buried in a nightgown, but my kids said they were going to be embarrassed. But I said, “Well, you’re going to sleep, why not have on a negligee set or something like that?” And I ain’t ruled that completely out yet. But they wouldn’t know who I am without my hat on, so they’ll have to put a hat on my head. I’m a hat person.

What are you most looking forward to right now?

I have a friend who will be 90 years old this year. I talk to her often on the phone. She lives in Orlando, Florida, and every time I talk to her she says she’d like to see me one more time before she leaves Planet Earth. And I told her it would be good for me to see her one more time. So I’m planning a trip.

And I’d like to go to Alabama, down there where I was born. I’d like to be down there for the Fourth of July. You ain’t never seen nothing in your life like it used to be on the Fourth of July for the black folks. Now, they don’t act that way today. But when we were on the plantation, they cooked goats, they cooked hogs, they cooked fish, they made homemade ice cream. Everybody just ate. It ain’t like that now. But I’d still like to spend one more Fourth of July in Alabama.

Read more from Slate’s Interview With an Old Person series.

Elva P. Higgins, Age 96, From Eastern Kansas

Louise Gili, Age 100, From Millburn, New Jersey

Gary Goodson, Age 82, From Idaho Falls, Idaho

Christina Cauterucci is a Slate staff writer.