Port Washington's African-American Heritage

Clarence Phillips (1892-1986)

Clarence Phillips at Home

Clarence Phillips at Home

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Click the arrow above to hear a complete interview from 1980 (1 hour, 29 minutes), or read excerpts below.  NOTE:  Some audio does not meet modern quality standards, but is included for historical value. 

My head was always in the papers looking for a job.  When I came here, when Tom Brown told me to come here and work in 1926, I saw an ad in the paper to Lewis Valentine.  I says to him, “I see you have an ad in the paper for a man who can set out plants, trees, and shrubberies, and also read blueprints.”  I says, “Well, I can do that, I’m just out of school.”  He says, “Alright, we’ll let you know later.”  Well, he died before he let me know later . . .

I went to Sands Point as my own gardener there.  See, there’s where I thought I was gonna make it, and I didn’t make it.  I worked so many different places I should be a millionaire myself.  I remember this one lady in Sands Point, she asked me to put some tubs of flowers around her pool.  I put them on a 4-wheel dolly and started to pull it, when I snapped the dolly and the rope broke and I fell in that pool.  And didn’t realize that I was in the pool.  You hear what I’m sayin?  I didn’t realize that I was in the pool!  And I’m preparin’ to move on off with the dolly and I looked around and I says, “I’m in the pool!”  That was a strange thing.  And my eyes was open just as good as I got them open now and I lost my glasses and lost a pair of pliers.  And couldn’t swim.  That’s the thing.  If I could swim I’d been alright, but I couldn’t swim.  And just as I’m talkin’ to you, this voice said to me, “Tread the water.”  It said, “Tread the water” three times.  And I started treading the water and then I found out that I was buoying myself up, you know.  “Ooooh,” then the thought come, “How’m I gonna get outta here?”  Cause I didn’t know the first stroke to get out, about swimming.  And that same voice came back again, “Make cups of your hands.”  Said it to me three times.  And I made cups of my hands like that, and I saw the edge of the pool and I reached and pulled myself out of the water.  I was wringing wet then.  And, the thing of it was, the owner of Friendly Frost, his wife had about 200 women over with a tea on the right of me.  And another family had a tennis match on the left of me.  And I’m drownin’ in the middle of ‘em.  And didn’t have the guts to holler “Help! Help! Help!”  And these people from that day to this, they don’t know what happened . . . I didn’t get a penny, I didn’t get nothing from the woman that I worked for, but a laugh out of it.  That’s all I got outta her.

Interviewed by Elly Shodell, 1980

Two subsequent interviews with Clarence Phillips are available at the Local History Center.

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