"We lived in a half house. Half of the house was gone. We did not have an outhouse. We had a portion that was kinda used for the outhouse. It was disgusting, but that was the way it was. The floors was all torn up. You had little pallets. You slept on the floor. All us kids used to pile together to keep each other warm. And then sometime we did not have a proper cover. I remember we put some old raggedy mattress on top of us to try and keep warm. Those shacks were really disgusting. It was not just one big house. It was a half a house. And it was a whole in the middle of the house were you had to go to the toilet. You would go there rather than go out at night with the snakes."
To hear Queen Sheba recount the story of her life in the Mississippi Delta, you would think you were listening to one of the narratives of former slaves. To hear her tell of her mother's escape from Sunflower, Mississippi from the grips of a plantation owner where her entire family planted and picked and chopped cotton, you would expect it occurred before 1865. Not so.
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Queen Sheba was born Martha Booker and was one of the seven children her mother rescued from Sunflower, Mississippi in 1965. Up to the age of twelve, Queen Sheba worked alongside her mother and siblings and grandparents in the cotton fields.
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"Oh man. I remember working sometimes as long it was daylight. As I sing in my song when there was just moonlight, we would be out there picking cotton then. I remember those times.
I had a couple of brothers that did not go to school. They would mostly do work. That happened to a lot of the black males. When they did not have a mule or a cow or a plow, they used one of them to do that," said Sheba.
Queen Sheba said her mother always hated Mississippi. "She always wanted to leave there. When she left in '64, I always tell everybody she escaped Mississippi. She was just so glad to get away from there. It was in '64 when my mom first left. It was in May of '65 when she took us out of there, but there were so many of my friends that I knew whose parents just left them there. They left them with relatives and friends, and they didn't come back to get them.
I remember how we would pick cotton all summer, and at the end of the time of picking the cotton, there was no money. My mom would have a list at the grocery store that the white man owned property that we were sharecropping. All during the winter, you had to go there and get things on credit. So what would happen is at the end of picking all the cotton, you would have nothing because you would owe it all to the owner, the “boss man.” You would wind up no having anything.
My mom just got tired of that. She really got tired, so what she did one night was... She did not want to tell my grandparents that she was leaving because she knew they were going to be upset about it. At that time I think it may have been about seven of us. She told us all that she was going to leave and that she was going to come back and get us. We went to the field this particular day, and she left us n the field. There was a sharecropper's bus, and she left and went to Florida, and our grandmother and grandfather found about it a little later on that night that mom was gone.
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It was something within her that drove her away from that place because she knew it was not right. She knew it was not right, and I guess that's the same thing in me. There is something that is driving me about Mississippi. There is something in me about that song, “Strange Fruit.” I love that song because there is something within us. The same thing that when there was something within Harriet Tubman. There was something in them. A lot of the people back then could not read or write like my grandfather. There was something within them. Our ancestors speaking within our genes, within our DNA telling us. It is in us. Move on! Continue! This is not where you are supposed to be. This is not it! Keep going! And my momma, there's something within her that made her not leave her children there. She wanted to come back and get her children. Something within her."
Queen Sheba is a Blues singer and a courageous woman. She wants to help others who have experienced similar things in their life. She was destined to tell her story through her music:
"Back home in Mississippi I was brought up singing in the fields and in the churches. That's how I started singing. It was a part of me because my father was a singer. My mother was a singer. I came from a whole family of singers. So it was just a natural gift. As far as the Blues, I really did not start singing the Blues until years later after I left Mississippi. I was ashamed to tell people I was from Mississippi. I didn't even want people to know I knew anything about the Blues.
Later on, as I got older, my true self began to come out, and someone observed me, a very wonderful pianist by the name of Josiah Israel. He would observe me singing. I would do a lot of Billie Holliday songs, standards, and jazz and stuff like that. He was telling me that the market was pretty tough for me because I was a little older and a lot of young ladies were out doing their thing. He felt that a market in the Blues would be perfect for me. I had the sound. I had the look. I had the history. I had been through it all. I had been dogged out by men, and been dogged out by life itself.
So I was really prepared for it. As he was telling me these things, I said, 'that is my roots, singing the Blues.' That is how I started getting into the Blues. I am being true to myself really instead of being out there trying to do all these other things which are not me. I could do all those other things, but my heart and soul is there in the Blues. That's me. That's where I came from. That's why I am into it."
Queen Sheba has developed a healthy perspective about the tragedies she has lived through. In fact, she is excited to share the lesson she has learned.
"My grandfather couldn't read or write, but he would travel different places. One thing he told me, he said, “Listen, anytime you are going someplace, like you are on the bus. Like you are on the Greyhound Bus and they make a stop at a rest area, and you cannot read the signs and you want to know where the bathroom is or where the food is at. All you need to do is watch the people. Watch the people because most of the time they are going to the bathroom or they are going to the food. So that has always stood out with me about my grandfather. He could not read or write, and I always wondered how he could keep up with counting money.
My grandmother loved baking cakes, and I loved when they made the quilts. They did a lot of canning, canning peaches and different stuff. She was very good at that, and I loved how she used to dress so...
nice with her pretty hats and all that.
So all that is still a part of me because even in my little yard now I am growing okra. I could still live off the land. That is in me. A lot of these people nowadays do not even know about that stuff. When you talk about the chicken and wringing their necks and all that stuff.
People still need to know how to live off the land. If you go in the woods, you need to know what kind of stuff you can eat and survive on in case you get lost in the woods. Most people don't. I knew from a child that when you a walk in the woods, you have to respect the woods. You can't just go walking in there not looking where you are going. You have to respect the animals in the woods. Snakes and stuff are everywhere. You have to know how to walk. Most people do not know how to do that. That is staying connected to nature, I believe.
I remember how we used to lay our head on the ground and listen to the ground and could hear animals coming. We could hear the rain coming because in the Delta, it is flat so you can ear stuff for a long ways. When you put your head on the ground, you can hear stuff coming from a long way off. What people remember that kind of stuff? We are losing it. People are ashamed of this kind of stuff now. This is what I am finding out. They are so tied to this new technology where everything is on the computer. Just hit a button and that is it. I think it is good that we have all this stuff, but I think the knowledge of those still should carry on just in case the computer one day does not work or just in case one day something happens.
I remember we used to go get our fish. We used to do something they call muddying where you get over in the pond and muddy up the water. When you muddied up the water, all the fish would come to the top. Then we would have a little basket or a little dress or something to pick up the fish. We used call that muddying, muddying the water to get fish. Now I believe this kind of knowledge came all the way from Africa. This knowledge I am quite sure I learned from my mom or somebody, but that is how we got our fish and our craw fish and all that stuff. Muddying up the water and using little dresses like a net to get the fish. That was truly wonderful.
Queen Sheba can share many skills for survival that were passed down to her from her mother and grand parents. They developed a particular way of living and getting by based on the difficult times they saw as cotton sharecroppers:
"My grandmother and grandfather and all of them would talk about not having enough this and that and not having enough food. My grandmother and all of us wished that when we saw that Greyhound bus coming, we wished we could just get on that bus and leave. We all were hopeful about getting out of there one day.
I remember as far as my eyes could see there was cotton everywhere. There were huge fields. About five families would be on one plantation, and each family had a certain set of cotton field to work as I recall. The plantations we were on were really big. My momma was telling me how this one particular person that was next us us had himself and his wife and one child. She and all her little kids outdid us picking cotton. If you were big enough to pick up a bole of cotton, you were in the field. If you were one year old and walking, you could pick up a bole of cotton. They trained you."
We will share more about the things Queen Sheba has learned that may help others in our next post. Queen Sheba made contact with Antoinette Harrell on YouTube, and made contact so she could tell her story. She felt great comfort sharing her story on Nurturing Our Roots with Hosts Antoinette Harrell and Robin Foster. Please take the opportunity to listen to the messages in the Blues songs by Queen Sheba on her album, "Butter on My Roll." Also, listen to the Nurturing Our Roots episode "Sheba, the Mississippi Queen of Blues," here: