History and the people who make it: Genevieve Payne Benson

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

This is the 35th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Genevieve Payne Benson [B] and Alvester Duckworth [D] were interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in 2012.

M: What was your date of birth?

B:  December 22, 1927 [in] Naciemento Coahuila, Mexico. I was born at home. My mother had twelve children and never had a doctor. Tia Panchita was the midwife, the señora partera. My daddy’s aunt. She delivered the whole Naciemento.

My grandfather was named Isaac Gardner and he and two brothers escaped from slavery from Georgia. They came to Florida. Then they escaped to Texas and in Lockhart, Texas, they put ‘em in jail.

One day, they told ‘em, “Boys, y’all better enjoy your last meal because we got in touch with your master. They’ll be here in the mornin’ to pick y’all up.” [Laughter]

They didn’t have no appetite. They started working, digging with their bare hand, tryin’ to dig their way out. They run up on a little piece of iron. They take turns, worked all night. Finally almost daylight time, it was big enough for they could escape, one at a time [Laughter].

They sneak through that hole and they began to run. They were chasing them with hounds and they run ‘til they got to a river, don’t know ‘bout the name of the river. They jumped, one of them almost drowned. But they pulled him out and escaped, and they cross over into Mexico.

They were hungry and barefooted. They didn’t hurt no one. They would go to the house, ask them for something to eat. Meat peddlers, they would rob them, but they didn’t kill no one, all they wanted freedom.

Finally they got to Mexico. Some of the Mexicans were scared of them, they never seen Black folks before [Laughter].

Nacimiento the little village where the Black people was, that’s where they went. They didn’t know no one, but they was free. They were free [Laughter].

D:  Nacimiento de los …?

B: Con aguila de los Negros, because Black people lived there. They started working out in the field. He met my grandmother over there. She was from Little Rock, Arkansas. Her folks had escaped to Mexico, freedom. My grandmother’s name was Susie, but they called her by her slavery name “Sookie.” They had a bunch of children. They got along good with the Mexicans and the Indians, the Kickapoo Indians. They went back and forth.

Then [my mother] growed up to be a teenage and she met my father, John Payne.

My father, his father had gotten into some trouble, and he had to go live with his uncle Bob. His uncle Bob was mean to him and took him out on the ranch and put him to work. Never send him to school. His daddy was name Plenty Payne had got in trouble, he brought the boss man saddle in town and sold it. Quite naturally that will send him to penitentiary and my daddy never did see his daddy anymore.

My grandmother, she was a widow, and she met this man by name of Jim July and she remarried again. My daddy never been in a school house in his life. Jim July would work him [Laughter] just like a slave, but he was nice to him. He’d get up, go to work with his stepfather and work all day long, but he never seen a penny.

One Christmas, his aunt Chrissy, aunt Penny, oh I don’t know it was ‘bout eight aunt he had on his daddy side, Chrissy said “do you want to go a place they call Nacimiento, freedom? We’re going there to spend Christmas, but we coming back.”

They took him to Mexico that Christmas, and he seen all those Mexicans and these black people out there dancin’ he said “oh this is a free country, I ain’t goin’ back.” [Laughter] He told ‘em, “You see this land, I’m building this little house.” It was nothing but a little shack! Dirt floor and all that. He got to workin’ out in the field, and that’s the way he growed up. Then he met my mother.

My mother name was Maurice Payne. They were real strict, they didn’t want them to have no boyfriend in them days. They would slip out and see each other and talk and all that. Finally they decided, they would get married. Mama was scared, she didn’t wanna tell her daddy! [Laughter] Oh lord, that old man got mad! Finally they did, they got married. Oh they had the children [Laughter].

When Revolution broke out, Pancho Villa was such a big crook my daddy was afraid of him. He would rob people, kill them, take their land, he and all his soldiers. He wanted my daddy to be on his side. My daddy said, no, no. Carranza broke this, he was against Pancho Villa. Finally my daddy left with Pancho, with Carranza and some more men.

My daddy said he wasn’t used to all that killing and robbing. What Pancho Villa did he send them pick up they family, all the men that didn’t wanna join him. Came and got my mother and her four children, some more black families, and Mexican, and my grandmother, she went along with my mama.

They was gonna put ‘em on an island, La Siglas a Maria. My mother barely know how to read and she wrote the—what they call it? The Council of United States.

M: Congress?

B: Yes, the Congress. The council we say it in Spanish, we never said it in English! She wrote a letter and this white man went in there, and she gave him that letter. That man put that letter in his shoes and mailed it and that’s the way they got off. Then they came again to United States, Galveston, Texas.

The little girls were sick, Della and Lorene. When she got in Brackettville, Lorene died. ‘bout two weeks after that, the other girl died, Della. My daddy—didn’t know where was my daddy. [laughs] He was running from Pancho Villa. She had only Bob and Tommy left, the two older sons. They stay with my grandmother—I don’t know how my daddy did find out that they was back in United States, he came on over. They lived there a while in Brackettville. My daddy said no we going back to Mexico [Laughter]. He said no this ain’t no free country, I’m going back to my free country.

They had another baby, my daddy decided he would name her Lorene. Then she had John, we call him Juanitas. That’s the only one living now of my brothers, and Fred.

D: He’s ninety-five years old, he’s still livin’.

B: She had six boys and six girls, I’m number ten. We grew up in Nacimiento.

We had ‘bout a thousand head of Spanish goat, a few cows, horses and all that. Oh we worked hard. None of us didn’t finish school. Then we came to United States, to Texas, way back in ’37, ‘38 and I liked it. I decided that I would stay with Lorene, my daddy’s mama, Rena July.

I started going to a three little room schoolhouse. They would make fun of me call me “Genevidog.” I wanted to learn English, and I’m glad I did. I went through a whole lot, but at least I learn how to write my name and read a little. I went far as to the third grade, fourth grade. I went on back to Mexico and then I came back again and went a while to school in Del Rio, Texas. I would always try to learn and they would always pick on me. Children are so cruel.

That’s why I tell my children—I have eight—don’t be mean, don’t make fun of no one. But I made it, oh I made it! Then I met Bo Benson, my husband. [Laughter]

We went together ‘bout two weeks. I was just 19 years old and he was 28 or 29. I didn’t know what married was, married? He said go to the courthouse. I went and sat there and wait for him, then I see him walking [gasps] that cowboy with that black hat. Oh my goodness! [Laughter] Look what I got!

We got married. Then I went on back. I was livin’ with my sister. He came to get me, “C’mon we going back to the ranch.” She said, “Where you goin’ with him?” Bo said, “I married this girl.” He took out the married license and showed. [Laughter]

My mama got to yellin’ at me and I sat there just shakin’. [Laughter]

I brought it all on myself, but oh I really loved my cowboy. [Laughter] We went out to a little ranch and my first son was born on Leap Year, my Leap Year boy. Then I had a girl—that’s his mother. I had another boy, A.B., the one with the Buffalo Soldiers now. I had Anna Marie in 1953, that’s the year my father died. From ’55 on I had four boys.

My father died, he was seventy-four. The horse fell on him. He broke his neck, his collarbone, and his back. He was yelling for “help, help…help! Ay, auxilio, auxilio! No puedo moverme!” Finally, some folks passing by picked him up. They bring ‘em to Muzquiz and that’s where he died.

D: The thing with the Seminoles and Mexico, they have such a huge Mexican influence so it’s different from the Seminoles in Florida …

B: I never dreamed that I would end up in Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee …

D: You went all over.

B: All my neighbors, they all Mexicans. They treat me right, just like I am one of them. I ain’t no black, I’m a Mexicana! [Laughter]

D: Grandma pretty much covered it all I think. I’m very proud of her. We used to call great-grandpa …

B: El pajarito, yes. They were lookin’ for him. Pancho Villa mens was comin’. We were living in a little shack in Nacimiento, and my daddy was going to milk the cows. Someone holler, “uncle Johnny! Some man comin’ down the street! There’s some more comin’ on the other side!” My daddy said, “Oh no, I ain’t goin’ – those are Pancho Villa men after me.” He just jumped on the horse. My mama got a broom and bop that horse. That horse jumped the fence. They never did find him. He was gone! [Laughter]

If I go back to Mexico and I seen some old people, I say I’m Pajaro daughter, “Yo soy hija El Pajarito.” He was a man, they don’t make them like my daddy anymore, oh no.

So many good memories over there. That was freedom over there. Oh yes.

D: That’s something I wanna point out, too that not only did they contribute to the culture of the United States—African or African American—but also in Latin America. Even the music and the Cumbia comes from West Africa and people don’t realize that so I wanna put that on record. [Laughter] A lot of Blaxicano influence, definitely. [Laughter]

B: We used to go them dances and all that good music and we be laughin’ and goin’ on. We had them good days in Mexico. All them days are gone.

Search for “Genevieve Payne Benson” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.

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