Summary of a 1991 oral history by D. Pfeifer; 1996
Summary of an Interview with Jessie Martin Washington; 1991
Mrs. Washington was interviewed by Dreamlane Pfeifer, an intern in the African American Project. The theme for this year's project was "African American Settlers in Tucson." Dreamlane also wrote this summary.
Mrs. Washington was interviewed at her home at 2510 S. Treat, on April 5, 1991. She appeared to be relaxed and very excited to talk with me. Mrs. Washington has a hearing problem, but expressed herself well.
Mrs. Washington was born on October 17, 1907, in Willcox, Arizona. She grew up on a cattle ranch 40 miles outside of Willcox in a small town named Bonita. She grew up in a rather large family with her mother, father, four brothers, and two sisters. She is the oldest child. Her twin sister died at one month of age.
At a young age Mrs. Washington began to learn how to ride horses as well as care for them. She also fed the ranch animals. During her childhood school days she attended Martin Grade School in Bonita, and she also attended Martin High School there.
After graduating from high school Mrs. Washington began to work immediately. She worked on a guest ranch cooking, and later teaching children to ride horses. She recalled an incident that happened. When she was young, her brothers, Caleb and Bill, and she were out on horseback, when suddenly some of their other horses "broke by" them startling her horse. Her father cried out to them, "Don't let them. Turn them back." Suddenly her horse fell and rolled over on top of her. She was put in bed for three or four days. After her quick recovery she rode again.
Mrs. Washington later moved to Morenci, Arizona. There she married David Cecil Williams. He worked in the Phelps Dodge mine as a janitor. Mrs. Washington also raised her brother's children there because her brother had gone into the service. After the mine closed, her husband moved to California but Mrs. Washington did not want to go. Three years later, in 1950, her husband passed away.
Though Mrs. Washington started out working in a guest ranch and made her living from it, she knew she had to move on to other things. She was called in 1952 by the head cook of the girls' dormitory at the University of Arizona to prepare meals for the girls. This job lasted for three years with the girls' and two years with the boys' dormitory. The students were really nice to her. They really loved her cooking.
Mrs. Washington met a man named Fermon Washington at a guest ranch, and later they were married in Lordsburg, New Mexico. She never had any children. She said, "The kids are just bad." While married, they traveled to many places. Her second husband died in 1977.
Mrs. Washington is a very caring woman. She has faithfully served two years as president of the V.F.W. post, three years as president of the American League, and two years as president of the Colored Women's Club. She helped feed the needy and also organized Christmas and other holiday gatherings for the people in need. On February 22, 1985, she was awarded the Outstanding Person Award for 10 years service to Tucson Metropolitan Ministry, Inc.
Her impressions of the Tucson that she knew earlier still remain in her head as "real countryfied," small, with fresh air, and a sense of being safe. Tucson today scares her. She said it is "big ... real big," with lots of crime in the streets and an unsafe feeling.
Mrs. Washington was a young girl when her father was called away to war during the 1920s . She remembers this as if it was yesterday. Her father was gone for eight months. She remembers her aunt saying, "Buddy, why don't you tell them you have all them little children?" Those days she said were bad times, but not as bad as today.
Even after the war when the depression came and work was hard to find, her family worked hard. Her father was working on someone else's ranch earning $1.50 a day. "Food was hard to get hold of." She used to watch her mother make lard from animal fat and preserves out of fruit. Because of lack of refrigeration, her mother would hang meat in bags in the water well to keep it cool.
Today Mrs. Washington lives alone and has one brother who is living in a nursing home. She attends the Jewish Center for the elderly three times a week.
I feel fortunate to have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Mrs. Washington. She has given a lot to many people, and she has received great rewards from just knowing them all. Tucson is lucky to have Mrs. Washington as a part of its history.