Interview with Mary Jo Robins, 2014 June 28

Material Information

Interview with Mary Jo Robins, 2014 June 28
Robins, Mary Jo ( Interviewee )
Taylor, Jessica ( Interviewer )
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
Tidewater Main Street Development Project
Rural life
Family history
Country stores
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Virginia -- Mathews


Mary Jo Robbins talks about her family history in Mathews County, her father's career as a waterman in the Chesapeake Bay, and growing up in the rural area. She also talks about her teaching career and her experience teaching during school integration. She ended the interview talking about how Mathews County has changed over time and what it means to be a landowner in Mathews County.
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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International license:
Resource Identifier:
TMP 025 Mary Jo Robbins 6-28-2014 ( SPOHP )


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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins 241 Pugh Hall Digital Humanities Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 35 2 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness acc ounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, S POHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Suggested corrections to transcripts will be reviewed and processed on a case by case basis. Oral history int erview t ranscripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript i s written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and form at I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information abo ut SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. May 2015


TMP 025 Interviewee: Mary Jo Ro bins Interviewer: Jessica Taylor Date: June 28, 2014 T: This is Jessica Taylor interviewing Mary Jo Robins on June 28, 2014 at two PM in Lilleys Neck full name? R: Mary Josephine Morgan Robins. T: Okay. [Laughter] R: I gave you the whole name. T: And when were you born? R: I was born October 31, 1918. T: R: My father was Wilford Butts Morgan. My mother was Clara Clayvelle Morgan. My father was a waterman, worked in the Chesapeake Bay mostly, fishing, oystering, and so forth. My mother did not work outside the home. T: Did you have any brothers or sisters? R: I had three brothers who were younger than I am. T: And what did they go into? R: Well . One of them worked in the shipyard, one of them worked in different jobs around in the community, one of them worked for the National Guard, I believe it was, and lived in Hampton, Virginia.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 2 T: Okay. Great. So g rowing up, what was it like to be the only girl? R: Well, it was a little bit lonely at times, but I had some close friends that we visited. I enjoyed them. T: Where did your close friends live? R: They lived in the area, in the community. We went to school together. T: Did you grow up in Li l l e ys Neck ? R: No. I grew up down close to the Haven Beach, which is spoken of as the Festival Beach. My husband and I moved to Lil ley s Neck like fifty years ago. [Laughter] R: But I lived in what was the Diggs com munity. T: Okay. And what was the Diggs community like in the 1920s? R: Very, very rural, as it still is. Most of the people who lived in the community most of the men worked in the water because we were close to the Chesapeake Bay and waters, rivers, and creeks. And all of the families, I guess, had small acreage and did a little farming, had their own animals, cows, horses, and that helped to provide food for the family that way. T: R: He would get up early most of the time. They worked according to the tide: if there was an early tide, they left home early and went out into the water. In the spring of the year, he put out pound nets, drove stakes out in the Chesapeake Bay and put the


TMP 025; Robins; Page 3 nets out there and caught fish there. In the fall, he would oyster at times. And of course, in between, he farmed. T: Where did he sell his fish to? R: there would be fish buyers that would come around close to they would meet them at certain places and sell the T: Was your mother involved in any of the farming or any of the business aspects of fishing? R: ble to do, she would go out. And of course, she gathered the vegetables and whatever they got from farming. Along with the vegetables, he would raise corn to feed the because they had pigs. They had to provide pork for the family. [INTERRUPTION IN INTERVI EW] T: This is Jessica Taylor continuing with Mary Jo Robins. R: We were talking about the farming, maybe. They raised corn to feed the pigs, and their other animals. On the farm, they would have cows to provide milk and they made their own butter and ha d milk to use in the family. My father always had either a horse or mule to work the fields, because before the days of having tractors, which they did not have then, they would work the fields with the animals. The cow provided the milk and the butter, an d they would kill the swine, the pigs in the fall, and that would provide meat mostly. Pork, of course, for the winter months and well into the summer.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 4 T: Did your father have people that worked for him or that worked on the farm? R: No. Well, occasionally he would hire someone to come in for a few days, but not permanently, no. T: So as a child, what was your everyday life like? R: Well, I would have to did help around the household, help my mother with the fields and help my daddy if it was something that I could do. We were free to play, have fun, part of the time, and then there were certain responsibilities around the farm and the household that we did. T: What did you do for play? R: Well, a lot of it was just imagination. Pretend that you were doing certain things. [Laughter] We would at times have a ball and bat and play, what we called cat then, which turned out something like baseball. In the summer, we would at times go to the beach because we l ived very close to the beach and the bay. You could play in the sand or whatever you wanted to do sometimes go into the water and swim. We would visit back and forth with the neighbors, too, because they had children near our age and we would visit with th em. Just whatever you found to do at the time. [Laughter] T: Okay. Where did you make friends at? R: At school and at church. And of course, we had close neighbors that we visited back and forth and had friends that way. T: What was school like? Which on e did you go to?


TMP 025; Robins; Page 5 R: I w ent to the Milford Haven School. When I went, we had six grades there. When we finished there, we went up to Lee Jackson, which was the seventh grade and the we went to the Haven School, we did not have a bus. If you went to the high school, you walked out to the neighborhood store and caught the bus each day. The bus took you to school and brought you back When we were in Haven, I was in Haven School from first grade through the sixth grade. I walked each day and it was probably a couple, maybe two and a half miles possibly to school. T: What do you remember about the building? R: There were three roo ms w hen I was there. Each room had two grades: first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. The principal of the school usually taught the fifth and sixth grades. There were three teachers, of course. We did not have a cafeteria; we took our lunche s. There was a pump you pumped by hand to provide water for the school. And we had outdoor restrooms. We did not have indoor plumbing. T: Mm hm. What was the environment like? What were the teachers like? R: They were very friendly, kind. They did demand that you obey; sort of strict discipline. [Laughter] But we did not have problems with the teachers. I did not have. T: existence of any of the Rosenwald Schools? R: . Mm mm. T: No. Like the African American schools?


TMP 025; Robins; Page 6 R: The African American children there were a few families in our community and their school was about four miles away from us. And they had to walk there during the time that I was in school. T: Wow. R: They could n ot attend our school. There was no integration. T: Right. Right. So when you were in elementary school and middle school, did your mother support you being in school? R: Yes. There would be meetings occasionally, and we would have programs that were planne d in the school, and the mothers would do what they could to help with that. Yes, they were very cooperative. T: Do you remember specific anecdotes about your t eachers or about other students, or memories that stick out in your mind? R: No. I just felt re al comfortable with my teachers, and I tried to do what they assigned us to do. [Laughter] But they were very considerate of us. Sometimes, there would be problems with some of the children and they would have to deal with that. T: Do you remember what th at would have been like? . Were you ever the problem? R: No, really I was not. [Laughter]


TMP 025; Robins; Page 7 R: If a child did not behave according to what they would expect, we had recess time. Recess, we called it. They would be probably held in the school, not be all owed to go out and play on the playground to do what we wanted to do. [Laughter] T: Fair enough. Were your grandparents part of your life when you were a child? R: My grandfather was very much a part of my life. We lived in his househol or fourteen maybe. And we lived in the house that he had owned. He was very understanding, I think, of us. He was not demanding of anything and everything went well until he pass ed away. Then after he had passed away, my father had bought a different house and we moved just a mile or so from where we were. T: Mm hm. Do you remember when he was born? R: He was born in 1851. T: Wow, okay. So he owned the house that he died in. R: Mm hm. T: Was that an older house? R: lived very close, but he had purchased this pie ce of land and built this house. A nd one of the rooms on th e house after his parents died -he had moved this section of his home place and joined it to the place that he built. So it was one room with an upstairs also


TMP 025; Robins; Page 8 that was joined. You would not have known it by looking at it, but that was the story he told, that he had moved that from T: So that preceded that would have been early nineteenth century. R: the age of that at all. T: Do you remember anything about it, interior or exterior? R: Well, it was a wooden finish weatherboarding, we called it on the outside. On the inside walls, some of them were plastered, and some of them, I think, were wood with what do you call it? Anyway, tongue and groove type ceiling wood, that seemed to be. Of course, there was no electricity. There was no heating syste m except individual stoves in the different rooms. The main cook stove was a wood burning stove. Later on, my daddy did buy a stove that used, I think, gasoline rather than oil. May have had an oil stove at some time, too. And they were used mostly in the summer to keep from being too warm. T: Do you remember feeling at the time like the house was old or that it sort of personified your grandfather or anything like that? R: Well, yes, but most of the houses in our neighborhood were older houses, too. There were a few new ones that had been built, but very few. T: Are any of those houses still standing? R: standing. They T:


TMP 025; Robins; Page 9 R: I think that possibly after we moved from it, there was another family that lived in happened. T: Did your grandfather ever tell you anything about the Civil War? R: He would talk about it somewhat. He was too young to be in the war, but he had that. But he did speak of it occasionally, but nothing that I can recall. T: Okay. Was it a general impression of . that it was hard for his family? R: Oh, yes. Yes. I think it was. T: Okay. All right. Were your grandmas alive it was just the one grandfather? R: Yeah, I ha miles from us. And we saw her quite often, but she was not as old as this grandfather. She was a little younger. T: R: Not as far as livin g with her or anything, no. She was very much a part of my life as visiting. She would come and spend the day at times, and at times we would go and visit her for a day. But, we did not live together at all. T: Okay. So besides your home and your grandfath were important to you? R: . The grocery store. [Laughter] We had two grocery stores in our community at that time, and the post office, of course. When I first remember the post office, it was in


TMP 025; Robins; Page 10 another grocery store th at closed, and then they had a post office building just for the post office. Later on, it was moved to one of the other grocery stores and had a section there that they used as the post office. T: Did you go there with your mother? R: Oh, yes Until I wa s old enough to go on my own and she would send me to the store. [Laughter] T: Were general stores a thing at this point, or were they mostly phased out? R: They were general stores. One of the grocery stores I remember in particular also carried yard material that you could go and purchase if you wanted to make a dress. And it would not have a large selection, but they would have some selections of material t hat could be bought for sewing purposes. T: R: Very much so, yes. T: Which church was yours? R: Salem Methodist, which we still have today. T: Okay. Do you remember your earliest impressions of the church? R: I rem ember going just as a very small child. We would have special programs. In just set aside for the children. Some of the adults would plan the program, and practice


TMP 025; Robins; Page 11 the chi ldren. It would be very important that we go and take part in it. Then, of course, our Sunday school classes: when I was a child, we only had preaching service two Sundays a month, but we had Sunday school every Sunday. Because we were on what, we called i n the Methodist church, a charge that had four churches the minister had four churches he would preach at our church on the third Sunday morning at eleven, I guess it was, following Sunday school. And then on the first Sunday of the month, we would meet in we had preaching following that. The other two Sundays, he would be at the other churches, and we would have our Sunday school but not preaching service. T: Do you remember places wh ere you or your parents would congregate to visit, maybe on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday night? R: roth er s homes, because he had several brothers that lived in the community, and we would visit with them quite often. T: What would you do when you went to visit? R: Well, if there were other children around, we might go out and play a few games. But ordi do anything else. T: Okay. Was music a big part of your life? R: did some things at the church or at the school, but music was not something that I could handle very well.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 12 [Laughter] T: All right. No! Me, too. Was your father, being a waterman, exposed to any watermen specific music or culture or anything like that, that you can share? R: they were very active with one another just in conversation and if there was something special to be done, they might talk about it. But T: hen you got to high school and perhaps became interested in men, what was dating like in Mathews? R: Well, we were restricted somewhat. You had certain hours that y ou could go out or come back in and so on. You could not stay out too long. I did not date a lot in high school. I just had friends boys who, we had a good time together at school just in conversation and being friendly. But I did not date a lot in high school. T: Okay. Did recreation change as you got older and maybe were given a little bit more freedom? R: maybe you had not been before. We did have a movie theater at Mathews Court House that you could go occasionally. But really, we did not have a lot of recreational t hings that we did. T: How did the Depression affect your family and your life?


TMP 025; Robins; Page 13 R: Well, as I recall just hearing about it, because you heard quite a bit about it. You were very limited as to what you could spend and what you could do. Yeah, it did affect t he whole area, I think. T: Do you remember anything specific, hearing about it, maybe the crash or maybe war in Europe, that kind of thing? R: . tried to be of what was happening. My grandfather had bought a radio when they not sure what time and when. [Laughter] But they would listen to the news, and they were always in terested in the newspaper and whatever was being printed. They really liked to know what was happening in the world. T: Mm hm. As a child and young adult, were you aware of historic structures: looking at things and saying, that is old? Or knowing a story associated with it, things like that. R: say, well, this belonged to Grandmother or to your great grandmother or something like that. They were aware of the value, sometimes, of historic things. T: Do you remember yourself any historic buildings that meant something to your family? R:


TMP 025; Robins; Page 14 T: Okay. How about stories that have been passed down about your family, maybe from the Civil War or before, about people in your family? R: I know they talked a lot about the Civil War. It seemed to have specific stories, though. But I know my grandfather w ould speak of it and things that T: the I mean, I guess it would have been Mathews, but then before, Gloucester County? R : T: folktales or ghost stories about Mathews in particular? R: Yes. We lived near an area that was called Old House Woods. There were quite es in particular, but it was supposed to be ghosts in the Old House Woods. [Laughter] And they did talk about it. But they were not over concerned about it, you know. They were not people who were really afraid of it, but it was just a lot said about that area. T: Huh. Strange. R: Mm hm. T: Were there ghosts anywhere else, maybe in haunted houses or things like that? R: they talked about.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 15 T: Interesting. Okay. I was also gonna a sk about, if you had heard anything maybe from your teachers or from your family members or elders in the community about R: T: Okay. So you R: Except for a couple of years when I was first married. We lived in Newport News. T: When did you live in Newport News? R: to [19]44, T: Okay. Was that because of the war? R: No, my husband was working, and I went to work for a while then there. T: Okay. Where did you meet your husband? R: I taught school, and his cousin was teaching with me. They lived in Middlesex, and he came over to how I met him. T: Okay. So after high school you went to college? R: Yes. T: Where did you


TMP 025; Robins; Page 16 R: I went to Radford. I went there for a couple of years. You could go there for two T: Okay. And you left there during World War II. What was living through the war like? R: Well, it was a little bit hard because of rationing. That was one thing that concerned us quite a bit. And then, you knew people who had to go, who were called up. And from this county, we had quite a few who went in the Merchant Marine ships and were lost at sea. And that made it very distressing. T: Yeah. So you were personally scared and R: Well, you were concerned, yes. Yes, and one of my brothers was old enough and was drafted. But fortunately, he did not have to go overseas and he was kept safe. But it was a concern, rea lly, for the families. T: I understand that. So, when you came back from Newport News, you lived in Mathews since then? R: Yes, we came back and lived down at Diggs. T: Uh huh. How has Mathews changed over time? R: change. T: No? R: I think the biggest change now is we have so many people who have moved in up with. Anyway. But the families that I knew that I grew up have gone on. T


TMP 025; Robins; Page 17 passed on. And we do have a lot of new people who are very fine people, but you just then. T: Mm hm. Have you noticed Mathews change physically over time, maybe new b uildings come in and old buildings go out? R: area We do not have the shopping place to go to the city, go to towns and do your shoppi ng for clothing and other things also. So we do not have the stores that we had as I grew up that you could go and buy shoes, coats, and dresses and suits and so on. T: How has that changed life in Mathews? R: if you want to buy any clothing or anythi ng, you have to leave the count y now made your shopping quite different. T: R: Yes, I taught fourth, fifth, sixth, and one year I taught seventh, I believe. I was an elementary school T: How long did you teach for? R: the fall of [19]38, and I taught four or five years and great number of years, but I did teach. After I was married I taught some, and then I had


TMP 025; Robins; Page 18 know just how many years I had. T: Mm hm. Were you teaching during integration? R: Yes. T: Do you want to talk a little bit about that? R: Well, I thought it went very well. When I was teaching, there was integration. The children from the former black school came over to Lee Jackson. I was te aching at Lee Jackson then. Certain grades went over there to the Thomas Hunter, which was the black school. But no, we did not have problems to speak of I mean, there may have been a few, but I just learned to really tell a lot about some of those other children, black children. T: What was it like teaching black children for the first time? What were some of the challenges there? R: Well, I think the biggest thing maybe was to make sure that they understood just where we were, what we were doing. Maybe some of them had to have a little more help, but I would n o t say it was anything great. T: Did you come in contact with their families? R: Just a very few. Not a great deal. T: When you did, what were the circumstances? R: They seemed to be very agreeable. I really feel that maybe they felt a little intimidated.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 19 T: Sure. Did the white and black children get along? R: Yes, they seemed to, very well. T: R: d at times of course, depending on what you were doing. But I did not see any big problems. T: Did that pattern follow with integration of public facilities? R: So far as I know. I was not involved a lot in the business end of it. Just going to meet up wit h them somewhere, it seemed fine. T: Beyond that, how did race relations change over time in Mathews? R: Well, it has changed, but for the most part the churches are not integrated. They kept their churches, and we kept ours. If they want to come and visi problem in Mathews with it. T: I just came from Mississippi where there was a lot of racial violence. R: ure. T: Did you and your family react to the larger changes during the Civil Rights Movement across the United States? R: No. I think that my parents were much more opposed to it than my age group, because they had grown up in a different situation where it was not done at all. There was no integration.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 20 T: Okay. What was it like to raise children in Mathews? R: Well, it was not too bad. [Laughter] I think we always have to sort of see what their friends are like and there would be certain people, maybe, that you would not prefer that they be with. [Laughter] But, othe rwise, my children seemed to get along very well with their friends. They visited back and forth. Some of them would come and visit with us, and we would let them go and visit their friends. So it was not too difficult. T: How many children did you have? R : Two. Had a son and a daughter. T: R: about it. I was very much aware of who she was with and where she was going and so on [Laughter] Tried to be, anyway. T: Did you approve of her choice? R: Yes. T: Yes. Did she marry someone local? R: Church which is up at Cobbs Creek his father was. And they were in the class through. [Laughter] T: your son do for a living?


TMP 025; Robins; Page 21 R: Well, he has had different occupations. Right now, of course, he is retirement age, but they live in Middlesex County. My husband bought a Southern States store, and he worked with him the last years of that. Then right now, he is still working in one of t he in Middlesex County. T: holidays or big events in Mathews? R: Well, the market days have been quite a big affair a few years pas that they so much is now. I think Mathews has been very much aware of special days have any particular things to say about the holidays. T: Do you remembe r the best Christmas you ever had as a child? R: No. T: No. R: T: Halloween for your children? R: They liked to really cel ebrate Halloween. [Laughter] R: would like to dress up and visit around the community and trick or treating. They enjoyed that.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 22 T: What was the route they would take around Diggs? R: Just going from house to house, any particular fr iends they had, anything special. T: What was early married life like? R: Well, my husband worked in the shipyard. He had been injured in the shipyard, but he continued to work on there for a while. We bought a house in Newport News and lived in that a whi le. But after a couple of years, there was a grocery store down at while. [Laughter] So he did. But my in laws lived in Middlesex County and we visited them quite often and of course, spent time with my family. We enjoyed family life with his family as well as with mine. T: your wedding day? R: Yes, I remember. T: Can you walk me through it? R: We ll, I had a very small wedding. I was marri ed at the church here at Salem, but it was not an elaborate wedding at all. I had one attendant; a friend of mine was bridesmaid, or maid of honor I guess she was. My brother in law was best man, and we did not ha ve a reception following. We just had the wedding and then we went on a little short wedding trip. T: R:


TMP 025; Robins; Page 23 T: R: We just stayed a few days. [Laughter] T: R: T: Okay. So you got to travel around a lot when you were a young adu lt. R: Yeah, and after we were married and after a few years, we did go on quite a few trips across the country. We went across the country just in the car. T: Why did you decide to do that? R: I just like to go! [Laughter] R: I wanted to see everything! T: R: Yes! Yes, we took the children, and even after they were grown we would go on trips, too. But we took the children then, to see. T: Okay, all right. So these other people that travel a lot come heres how have they changed the way that the community functions? R: a time when you went to the grocery store or wherever, you knew everybody there. And now y


TMP 025; Robins; Page 2 4 mean, they enjoy things that we have always thought you know, just came naturally maybe. Like, a lot of times you see the boats out on the water and things that like. Peopl T: R: [Laughter] T: How has being from M athews changed how you see everything outside of Mathews? R: Well, when I first went outside of Mathews, I was familiar with the water, the lowland, flat land. And as you go other places you see the difference in the way the earth is constructed, really. A nd also the businesses that you see in larger areas Mathews i s quite different. T: What about the people? R: Well, I think most of the places you go that you will come across friendly people. been, but I think you find friendly people everywhere y ou go if you try to be a friend T: mean a lot to you if you can think of any.


TMP 025; Robins; Page 25 R: . Well, the Haven Beach owned that property. T: Really? R: and then my daddy places, the Chesapeake Bay, that I think of when I was a child. It just was very important to me. I admire that part of Mathews quite a bit. I always enjoyed going up I but going to the Court House area, when there were businesses minute or you might want to buy something from them. That always meant a lot to me. I enjoyed going. And when I grew up, people went to the Mathews Court House on Saturday night and just visited back and forth. You walked up and down the street. That was a lot of fun, you saw a lot of people, and you really felt that was something very special. And so friendly. You feel at home with them. You feel like they care. And that means a lot. T: What does it mean to be a landowner in Mathews? What does that mean to you? R: where you are, where you live. You feel like you can do what you need to do with it. o everything, but you can do some things with it. T: With that in mind, can you help me understand why Haven Beach in particular is so special to you?


TMP 025; Robins; Page 26 R: Because I think of it something that I c an remember from my childhood. T: R: T: Here we go. [ End of interview ] Transcribed by : Jessica Taylor December 2, 2014 Audit edited by: Jeffrey Flanagan, December 31, 2014 Final edited by: Jessica Taylor

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