Click the arrow above to hear a complete interview from 1980 (1 hour and 8 minutes), or read excerpts below. NOTE: Some audio does not meet modern quality standards, but is included for historical value.
My grandmother, Minnie Biddle, was a great woman, a long liver, from a long line of long-livers in my family. She was born in Port Washington March 10, 1970. I remember her telling me stories about some of the farms she worked on . . . Davis, Townsend, Stannard, Montford, Cocks. She used to do laundry for them. Her mother, Familia “Phoebe” Dumpson, was born here in 1842, on the Onderdonk Farm, where her mother, Liba Jane Townsend [1817-1919], worked. The Indian ancestry goes way back. My grandfather was originally from Cow Neck, he wasa a Poospatuck Indian.
. . . We were just plain workers. We didn’t have much to start with. From what I understand my great granma got the best education—respect—very little schooling. I guess she could write her name but I don’t think she could read. I used to hear my grandmother call it “mother wit.” They had something that wasn’t in books but they learned, you know, a simple respect for the neighbors.
My grandmother could tell stories. Since we were one of the oldest black families here she was tellin’ me stories about some of the old Jewish people who used to come here from Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and how she used to help them. She had a Jewish family that used to stay in her barn an’ she used to tell me stories about the old Italian families when they first came here and how my grandfather used to help build some of their homes up around Avenue A . . . We had the Manzos and the Cellas as neighbors. I guess they taught my mother a few of the old Italian recipes and how to prepare Italian food. She was a helluva cool. Oh, she could make some spaghetti and lasagna out of this world. And my grandmother, oh God, could she bake. My grandmother used to make hot cross buns every holiday season. My cousin Dave an’ I used to sit down and eat a pan full . . . You didn’t discuss making a living with granny. You never got into that. When I was comin’ up, you had your limits. I used to talk about, eh, my grandfather, she’d just say, “your grandfather was a very staunch man, a very proud man, a hard worker, a very hard worker!” He was a mason.
I always felt that this was my town. My roots go back further than just about anybody’s here in this town, my family blood . . . I love this town. I won’t move. I’d have to start a new family tree! There are very few friends of the family which wasn’t cousins, since just about everybody in Port Washington, the blacks, were related. We had a family full of the best comedians in the world. They never got anywhere, but they kept it in the family. We had singers, dancers. I had a cousin Chet Townsend who had the prettiest voice in the world. Uncle Will [Townsend], all those guys, they could do the shuffle, bump dances, and the mouth harps.
Interviewed by Elly Shodell, 1980