My name is Nell Louise Clark and I was born January 13, 1922 in Durham, North Carolina. My father was a stone smith. He worked building foundations and entire buildings from stone at Duke University. He always carved his initials into the last stone he placed into his construction. I still sometimes stop by the university when I am going through Durham, just to walk around the buildings and look for my father’s initials.
My mother ran the bar and dance hall that we owned. I used to play quietly behind the bar and listen to the music from the dance hall. I grew up with an extensive knowledge of the music from the 1920’s and 30’s because of that time.
My memories of the Great Depression are mostly of the fact that money was tight. We did pretty well because Mother and Daddy both worked, but I can remember them worrying when Daddy was between buildings and business at the bar was slow. I can remember men at the bar complaining about money. I can remember not having toilet paper and having to use newspaper or magazine pages. My parents filled rows of shelves in their garage with boxes of toilet paper, paper towels and napkins until the day they died. I always figured this was left over from the Depression when paper was impossible to get.
I was a young teenager during WWII. My father died when I was twelve so my Aunt and Uncle moved in with us to help out with the bar. I remember my Uncle, who was a Marine. He fought in the war and we were all worried that he wouldn’t come home. There were many men that came to our bar from many branches of the armed services. I would overhear some of them talking about battles they had seen. Some would boast and brag, but most sounded very sad and didn’t discuss much.
The first time I married, I was just sixteen. I was helping out after school at my Mother’s bar and there was a man named John who came in regularly. He always talked to my mother a lot. I think that they would have ended up in a relationship, but one day, my mother asked me to go get change for the bar and she asked John to drive me to the corner store. He pulled onto a small lane off of the main roadway and began telling me that I was the one he was interested in and he had wanted to tell me that for a long time. He started kissing me, and I liked his attention, but then he raped me. It happened so fast that I didn’t know what was going on. From that day on, I wouldn’t ride with him anymore although my mother had asked him to drive me places for her several times again. When it became obvious that I was pregnant, I told my mother what had happened. She went to John and told him he would marry me or they would go to his officers at the Army base and tell them he raped me. We got married before the Justice of the Peace at the courthouse. It wasn’t anything like what I had dreamed of.
John got transferred to Harrisburg Pennsylvania a month after we were married, so we moved away from my family and the only place I had ever lived. I missed my three sisters and my mother, but I also thought that maybe the move meant that we would be starting on a new life of our own.
My first daughter was born at home, 3 months premature. We lived on the Army base and one day, I was outside hanging clothes. Our neighbor lady waved and asked me how I was doing. I told her I was fine except that I thought I must be getting a stomach virus because I had been in the bathroom all day and my stomach hurt awful bad. She was a nurse at the hospital and worked nights, so I trusted her opinions. She came over and took me by the hand and we went inside. When I stepped up onto the back porch, my water broke. I had no idea what was going on until she told me she thought I was in labor. I told her I couldn’t be, that I had three more months to go and we didn’t even have any diapers! She said she didn’t think the baby cared about that. She told me to lay on the kitchen table and she ran and got a pillow for my head and a sheet off of the bed to put over me. She told me that the baby’s head was coming out, and seconds later she held up my tiny little daughter. She grabbed a dish towel by the sink and wrapped the baby in it and handed her to me. She told me to stay there for a minute and she went to another neighbor’s house and had her get a hold of the doctor. When the doctor came he weighed my little girl, Jane Louise. She weighed 4 pounds, 3 ounces! They moved me into the bedroom, helped me get comfortable, and showed me how to feed her. The doctor said that Jane was so small that she might not live, but if she made it through the night, she would be okay. I stayed awake all night, holding her in my arms, watching her sleep. She woke up crying in the morning and I was so happy that I cried right with her. My husband John had been away for some training and he came home the next day. He was so surprised to see the baby. He immediately said, “Let me see that little peanut!” and from that day on, Peanut was his nickname for her. I had two more children in the next two years; first another little girl I named Nancy and then a boy we named John Jr.
John was away from home a lot and he drank when he was home. He was unkind to the children and with me also. I tried to make sure everything was clean and nice and that the children were well dressed when he came home, but he seemed to always find something I didn’t do, or do well enough. He sometimes hit me. I kept trying to do better, but never seemed to live up to his expectations. When Jane was six years old, John came home drunk one night. There was a dish in the sink and I tried to run for it before he saw it. I didn’t make it. He started saying I was a slob and a filthy person and he grabbed a cast iron frying pan that was hanging on the wall. I thought “Oh no, I’m gonna die and leave these children alone with this man!” His yelling woke up John Jr. who appeared in the doorway just as John was starting to swing the pan. John Jr. ran to me, holding his hand up to try to stop the pan from hitting us. John tried to stop mid swing, but the pan hit John Jr.’s hand, breaking two fingers and driving his thumb nail up into his thumb.
The next day, we had to take John Jr. to the hospital. They asked what had happened and I told them. They called a social worker in who said they were going to take the children away. I knew a man from church who was a lawyer, and I called him. He and his wife came to the hospital and told them more about my circumstances. They agreed to take the children temporarily and put them into a nearby Children’s Home where I could visit them, if I filed for divorce. Then, once I was on my feet and doing well for three months, the children could come home. I was terrified. I had no family nearby and no real friends, but I agreed.
I began looking for work immediately the next day. I found a job as a waitress at a tea room not far from the Children’s Home and the owner said I could stay in his mother’s house in exchange for helping her out some. I worked hard and saved every penny. It took longer than I had planned, but I saved enough within 6 months to put a down payment on a small house in the outskirts of Harrisburg. I met a colored woman, Mary, at church. She needed a job and a place to live because she had been in similar abusive circumstances, but she had no children. She agreed to move in and stay with the children while I worked, in exchange for room, board and a small salary. She was wonderful and she encouraged me to go to school at night to learn bookkeeping. After I got my certificate, I did jobs for businesses after hours and waitressed in the day. I was so proud of the fact that we were on our own and doing pretty well. We had all we needed and I was happy. Mary and I were fast friends. We were both 22 years old and we were both each other’s first best friend.
I first registered to vote when I was 23 years old. My mother voted and was part of the suffragette movement, but my life was so focused on survival, I never thought about it until Mary made me go register with her. The first president I voted for was Harry Truman. I liked him because he reminded me of my Uncle. It wasn’t a great reason to vote for a presidential candidate, but I didn’t know much about anyone who was running. I had heard Truman on the radio and he spoke with such confidence and had so much knowledge, that I was sure he would be a wonderful president.
People often teased me about Mary being my best friend. Our neighborhood was completely white working class. When we were out with the children, most people believed that she was our nanny or a hired workwoman. In the early years of our friendship, Mary was sometimes not able to use the same restroom and there were separate water fountains for “negroes” and whites, and even separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office. It was ridiculous. People spoke down to her at stores and the grocer would always give her the bags to carry. I would get mad, but Mary would tell me to be quiet, because causing a commotion would only make more trouble for us. We were both involved in supporting civil rights and we attended several meetings supporting rights for all human beings. Once, we were walking home from the church near our home and some men in Ku Klux Klan costumes were walking down the street towards us. We knew they were going where we had just come from. Mary noticed them first and she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the bushes. We quickly ducked into a hedge, panting and praying that they hadn’t seen us. They walked right by. We ran as fast as we could around the block to the back of the church and told a man in the kitchen what we saw. He said someone else had warned them also and everyone had cleared out. We were so relieved. We ran home through the alleys and collapsed on the couch when we got inside. That was the closest we came to any kind of organized threat.
I reveled in the women’s liberation movement in the 60’s. I burnt my bra in the park and picketed for women’s rights. I campaigned against cultural and political inequalities and led housewives in marches. I read Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique and I read Anne Sexton’s poetry and wept and I quoted them like they were my bibles. I had spent many years feeling squelched and mistreated by a society of men, that the revolution for women felt like a jail cell door had been opened for me.
I still am supportive of the exercising of rights, but my focus is more on human rights and even animal rights, rather than rights of one sex or social group. At eighty-six years old, I have become wiser in the understanding of people. I now see that for anyone to feel satisfied with their lives, freedom and equality is crutial.