Interview with Ms. Maggie Johnson, 14 December 1998, at her apartment in Pennsylvania Bidwell High Rise, Manchester, Pittsburgh, PA.; interview conducted, transcribed and edited by Barry Chad.
Transcribed: 22 December 1998.
Reviewed with Ms. Johnson: 25 January 1999
Entered online: 12 January 1999.
Updated: 22 May 2003.
Q How long have you lived in Pittsburgh?
A I came to Pittsburgh in 1942.
Q How long have you lived at the Hi-Rise?
A About five years. I moved here from Buena Vista Street. It was a seven-room house. Very nice. And I was happy. And my husband was happy about it. My house got burned up. I didn't save a thing, but I have a nice family. Across the street my neighbors--they kept knocking on the door. The house was full of smoke. I couldn't find the door. But I heard knocking on the door--that's the way I found it. The Red Cross was very nice. They helped me...and my pastor and my nephew, Reverend Walker. He was very nice to help me get this apartment. Very nice. I do my own shopping, my washing and ironing...and we have a jitney man living here, he take us to the bank.
But when I first came to Pittsburgh, I was living in McKees Rocks on Half Street. I had good neighbors. And my husband--I had a good husband named Fred Johnson and he worked in a steel mill in Coraopolis and I came from a good family. They were religious. We had prayer meeting in our home every Wednesday night. We had to be in the house at 8 o'clock to have prayer meeting. My parents: my dad was Wheeler Salter. My mother was Mae Frances Rankin Salter and they would talk to us and tell us how to live: do the right thing--pleasing in God's sight. They took us to church every Sunday--we was in Sunday school. My mom and dad was the preachers. And my mother's dad was the Reverend Emmanuel Rankin. And my mother's mother was Sarah Lett Rankin. And he was called one of the big shots in Evergreen. And he had pecans--just miles. I was born and raised on a farm and my grandaddy had a big gin. He ginned everybody's cotton, and baled the cotton, and ground the corn to make meal, and ground the syrup--cane--you know they had cane at that time. And he had a mule [that turned the mill]. And you stick that cane in there, made it make the juice come out, and they had a great big pan to cook it in, cook it until it made syrup. And those were the good old days: my father and he was a good farmer, a good provider. And we were fourteen kids: ten girls and four boys, my brothers and sisters. And we lived good. We never went hungry a day in our life. My father and mother was good parents. They always shared with other peoples in their neighborhood.
And so, as I said, when I came to Pittsburgh, I went to work at a place down in McKees Rocks Federal Enamel. I worked there for about twenty years. And Federal Enamel sold the shop. I went to Gimbel's and got a job. I worked in stocks--when the merchandise come in, I check it out. I had to count every piece come in. And I retired at Gimbel's. Gimbel's sold this place too. They sold. I forget who they sold it to, but anyway they sold. And then I was old enough then to get my pension and retirement. So I came home.
My husband and I had one son by the name of Fred Larry Johnson. We brought him up in church, Sunday School. He was an usher, sang on the choir. And we didn't have no trouble with Fred Larry Johnson. He was a good kid. We sent him to private school--McKeith's private school out in Oakland. That's where he graduated from with high honor. He went to college about two years and then he took off to Kansas City. I said, "You know how to take care of yourself and you always pray. And you want anything, you always ask God for it. You have to pray for what you want if you want it bad enough." He said, "Well I'll call you when I get there." Well, I washed his shirts and ironed 'em and packed his suitcase so he'd be clean. And he took off. He got there, he called. He went to work three days after he got there. So he went to school and working night and day. He took up computers. He got married--his wife she's a nurse--and they have five kids. He's a hard-workin' boy--like his dad.
I belong to the church in Wesley Center. Bishop Colgate, the pastor for 23 years. My pastor now is Reverend Grayson. I go to church. They have something going on all the time at the church. I go to church every Sunday I can. I'm a deacon in the church. I used to be a class leader--had to give it up 'cause my health became poor. I help give communion and I go around and visit the sick, see what they need, go to store for them. Some of them say well I ain't got no money. I used to spend my money to do so. I go to church every Sunday I can. I used to sing in the choir. I was one of the leaders. My dad was a good singer. He loved to sing "Amazing Grace." He could set the church on fire.
As I said, my husband was Fred Johnson. He was a good husband, a good provider.
Q What's life like here at Bidwell?
A Pretty good. I stay to myself a lot--I always did...from a child…stay to myself a lot 'cause when I was growing up, I stayed with my mother a lot. I cooked, sewed, washed and kept the house clean. We had a twelve-room house. My dad was a carpenter. He built us a great big old house. He had to— with fourteen kids!
Q You are originally from Alabama?
A Yes I am. I was born in a little town called Evergreen, Alabama. And I was born under a midwife named Frances Crosby I can remember Aunt Frances very well. And I can remember: I was six or seven years old. I can remember that syrup mill, my grandaddy bale that cotton, made that syrup. I remember my dad had a big horse--he had white down his face, white tail, he was a big horse. His name was Charlie. Nobody could ride him but my dad. My dad would dress up, had on his brown boots, big brown hat, and he'd get in that saddle, you know, big brown saddle and my dad would go all over the community riding that horse. And I remember too my grandfather Rankins had a surrey--a buggy, they call it a buggy--and it had two seats--one in front--three people could sit in front and three in the back with that old mule named Molly. Molly would pull that surrey, that buggy. And we went to school. We didn't have much school down there in those days--three months. And it was pretty hard to get a education but we done what the best we could my father did. So I had one sister. She graduated. She was a school teacher. And my father began to get ill. So he passed. And my mom she struggled with us. She did the best she could 'cause she was a sweet mother, very religious. I was proud of her. I'm proud I was born and raised in Alabama. Those were the good days, good old days.
Q Did you come north with your husband?
Q You met him down in Alabama?
A Yes. I went to church one Sunday with my niece--it was her church--and I met this guy by the name of Fred Johnson. He say he fell in love with me. I don't know: I kind of hesitate for a while. We correspond each other for about better than a year I guess. So my father he had passed. Well, he asked my mom could he marry me. My mom said, "Yes...I guess so...I can't say right now 'cause she's all the help I got around the house, you know. She do all the cooking, clean the house and make all the kids' clothes." And I could sew real good. I could even make shirts. I don't sew so good too much now, because I have arthritis. But I used to sew for everybody in the neighborhood. It was a big neighborhood, everybody had a whole lot of kids.
Q Were you the oldest of your brothers and sisters?
A No, I'm the seventh child of the fourteen kids. I'm the seventh child. See--the other girls were married and gone and it fell on me to do so. I was the last girl to get married. My first teacher was Dave Kyles. He was a pastor--Reverend Dave Kyles. He was a good teacher. But they used to have paddles--if you didn't get your lesson right or spell your words correct, they paddle you on your hand. You know they don't whoop kids anymore. They don't paddle them anymore now. They don't paddle them. They need it. My parents they allowed us to stay out at night: 8:30--we had to be in the house. When we went to church at night, my mom went with us or either my father. And if my mom and dad didn't feel like going, they sent my oldest sister and my oldest brother and we had to listen to my oldest sister and oldest brother. It was alright. It was a better world then. It was a better world--when my parents raised us like that. And my husband and I raised our son like that. My mom always said, "Be true to your husband," and which I did. So, I'm ninety years old. I've lived a good life. I never drank. I never smoked. So, I guess that's what made me strong as I am now at this age. My husband's dad was Reverend Ishmael Johnson. He lived here in Pittsburgh. My husband's mother died in Ohio Valley Hospital--I mean the old hospital. My husband, he was born back South--his great grandmother and great grandaddy raised him--by the name of Ann Catherine Bailey and Fred Bailey. I know he had five brothers and two sisters--my husband--he had five brothers and two sisters. And they all gone but two sisters and one brother. He had a stepmother by the name of Lillian Bush Johnson. She was a very nice person.
Q What brought you and Mr. Johnson North?
A He was working in the steel mill in Birmingham, Alabama. We got married. We moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and he was working in the steel mill. The steel mill went down so he asked for a transfer. He had brothers here working in the U. S. Steel mill out in Homestead and he asked for a transfer and they transferred him and that's why we came to Pittsburgh. He had brother and sister and his dad was here and his stepmother. So he worked there in the steel mill until his health began to get bad--'round all that steel--he had to pour steel--it affected his lungs. In 1990 he passed. But he didn't work at Homestead too long. He got laid off and then he went to Coraopolis and when Coraopolis shut down he went down to Lawrenceville. They had a steel mill down there and that's where he worked until he retired. So after he retired, he had a part-time job working at Point Park College in the housing department. He picked up extra jobs, you know. He drove a jitney for a while--four or five years. He was a good working man.
We was going to travel a lot. And so my husband had got us a big car, a Mercury Marquis and we'd go traveling. And so we always went South every year when we got vacation time and my mother was living then. You know I want to see my mother every year. I don't have no car: after my husband passed, the kids kept breaking my windows out. They stole my car--I'd find it down in McKees Rocks. It was so much aggravation--I was getting older--I couldn't handle it, I couldn't deal with it so I sold my car.
Q To what do you attribute your long life?
A I lived a clean life. I was religious, go to church. Try to treat people right. And do unto others that I might have others to do unto me. And I didn't drink. I didn't smoke. And I like to help people. I like to give. I'm a free giver. And I think that God blessed me from that--to live a long life. My mother always said that sometime God would take other people and lengthen your life, but I don't know, according to the Bible, He didn't lengthen but one person's life.... I don't know. I can't get that together but it's been so long since my mother used to sit down and talk to us.... But, God's keepin' me here for some reason...to live to get 91 years old.... I always was on the quiet side. I never argued with people. When people start arguing, I walk off. I had a good husband. We never did fight nor scratch. Sometimes, you know, we have our difference. I suppose everybody do in life. When the Lord saw fit to take him, it kind of hurt me, but I got over it. But I miss him. I never got married no more.