A Candid Talk with Frankie Washington and Rena Leland from Michelle Shocklee’s Under the Tulip Tree

Welcome, ladies. Tell us how you became friends. 

Frankie: It began when I received a letter from the gov’ment wanting to hear my stories about being a slave. I thought they was fooling with ol’ Frankie. Why would anyone care about such things in 1936? But sure enough, one day this pretty gal arrived on my doorstep with a list of questions a mile long. 

Why was the government collecting stories about slavery seventy years after the Civil War ended?

Rena: I think there are two reasons. First, when the stock market crashed in 1929—on my sixteenth birthday, no less—a terrible depression hit the economy. Millions of people lost their jobs, including my dad. President Roosevelt hoped to help people get back to work by creating jobs through the government, and one of those organizations was the Federal Writers’ Project. Because I’d worked for a newspaper, I was hired by the FWP to interview former slaves for a project they called the Slave Narratives. People like Frankie were getting older—sorry, Frankie, I don’t mean to say you’re old.

Frankie: Child, I’ve seen 101 birthdays. If that ain’t old, I don’t know what is. {chuckles}

So, the government wanted to preserve the stories of former slaves? Why are they called narratives?

Rena: Yes. Like Frankie said, when I arrived at her house, I had a list of questions I’d been given by the FWP director in Nashville. My instructions were to ask the questions and then record the interviewee’s answers word-for-word. That’s what makes the narratives so special, in my opinion. They are the words of the person who actually lived them out. 

Was it difficult to revisit the dark days of slavery, Frankie?

Frankie: It was, but the Lord helped me. I know it’s important that our stories aren’t forgotten. Slavery might not be legal nowadays, but there’s still a lot of problems left over from slavery times. I have hope that people like Rena and her young man, Alden, will be the ones to bring about change. 

Rena, did you know much about slavery before you met Frankie?

Rena: I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. Even though I’d grown up in Nashville and had studied about the Civil War in school, I don’t remember learning much about the evils of slavery. When I heard Frankie’s story, I knew there were thousands of others like it that needed to be told. People of my generation and the generations to come shouldn’t forget about slavery. I’m thankful it isn’t legal to own a fellow human being anymore, but, like Frankie said, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order for everyone to have equal rights.

Frankie, you’ve shared that you’re 101 years old. You’ve seen a lot in your lifetime. What are some of the most memorable events you recall?

Frankie: Gracious, there’s so many. I remember hearing the news that President Lincoln had been killed. Sam and I cried our eyes out, ’cuz he was a good man. I remember when the first black senator was elected—Hiram Revels of Mississippi—five years after the war ended. I didn’t think I’d live to see such a thing. I believe it’s good to have different kinds of folks running the gov’ment. Kinda give them a more complete perspective on things. I remember seeing a car for the first time and hearing a man’s voice coming from a wooden box called a radio. Those are some mighty amazing inventions, and I ’spect there will be more to come long after I’m gone home to heaven. 

If you could go back in time and change something about your life, what would it be?

Rena: I wish I could stop the stock market from crashing, because it caused so much pain for so many people. But, admittedly, I wouldn’t have met Frankie if I hadn’t taken the job with the FWP, and I took the job because my family needed the money. I also wouldn’t have met Alden.

Is he someone special?

Rena: Yes, he’s become quite special to me. He also works for the FWP.

Frankie: This might come as a surprise to you all, but I wouldn’t change anything about my life, not even being a slave. God didn’t make me a slave, but he was with me as I lived as one. Back in the Old Testament, his chosen people were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. That doesn’t make slavery right, but it tells me God has bigger plans than what I can see in my present circumstances. Like Rena said, if I hadn’t lived the life I lived, I wouldn’t have met my Sam or her. 

What do you hope your friendship with one another will inspire in others when they read about it?

Rena: I hope it will inspire people like me and my family to get to know people like Frankie and her family. I’d always been warned to stay away from the neighborhood of Hell’s Half Acre because it was dangerous, so you can imagine how surprised I was to find this dear woman had lived there most of her life. Too often we make judgments about people and places without knowing the full story. I can’t imagine my life without Frankie in it. 

Frankie: I agree. Unfortunately, the same can be said for folks down in the Acres. We make judgments about people who are different from us, just like anyone else. My hope and prayer is one day we’ll all simply love one another as Jesus commanded in Matthew 22:39. Wouldn’t that be something?  

Thank you, ladies, for sharing your hearts with us.


Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at michelleshocklee.com.  

Photo credit: Author photo taken by Jodie Westfall, copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.

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