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An African-American Artist Tells His Life's Story

Multi-media artist Horace Pippin, in an appendix to a book of his works published one year after his death in 1946, details his early years as a young African-American artist, his subsequent tour with the U.S. Army in France as a corporal during World War I, and his re-entry into the American art world after surviving a serious battle injury incurred in Champagne in 1918.

My Life's Story
By Horace Pippin

I was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on February 22nd, 1888. My mother left West Chester when I was very young. And my first knowledge of anything was in Goshen, New York. I went to school on Merry Green Hill in Goshen. It was a one room school house, which went as high as the eighth grade.

When I was seven I began to get into trouble. It happened this way. In spelling, if the word was dog, stove, dishpan or something like that, I had a sketch of the article at the end of the word. And the results were, I would have to stay in after school and finish my lesson the right way. This happened frequently and I just couldn't help it. The worst part was, I would get a beating when I got home, for coming home late, regardless what I were kept in for.

One day I got a magazine with a lot of advertisements in it of dry goods. In this magazine there were a sketch of a very funny face. Under this face printed in large letters it said make me and win a prize. And I did and sent it to Chicago, to the address that was given. The following week the prize came. It was a box of crayon pencils of six different colors. Also a box of cold water paint and two brushes. These I were delighted in and used them often. Whenever our Sunday school gave a festival, they asked each scholar to donate some thing for it. I got a yard of muslin, and cut it into six pieces, then fringed the edge of each making a doily out of them. On each I drew a biblical picture such as Jesus Ascending, Elijah Ascending in the Chariot of Fire, Daniel in the Lion's Den, The Three Hebrew Children in the Firy Furnace, Moses in the Firy Bush and the Beggar at the Gate. These I worked faithfully over, using my color crayon pencils and taking them to the festival. They hung them on a wire along the wall to be sold. I liked them very much. During the festival we children played in the church yard, until we were called to get our refreshments. When I came in I looked along the wall where the doilies had been hung and they were missing. I asked my teacher what had happened to them. She told me they had been sold to an old lady. I was so excited upon finding out that they had been sold, I didn't even ask the lady's name. I took the good news to my mother, who was delighted to hear the good news.

One day about a month after the festival a lady standing in her door stopped me, as I was going by on my way to school, and asked me if I wasn't Horace Pippin. I answered yes mam. She asked me if I made the doilies. I told her yes. She said you certainly make some bum things. And drew her hand from under her apron. And in her hand was a clean piece of fringed muslin. And said look at this, I bought it at the festival with a picture on it. I washed it and this is all I have. I explained to her that the picture was only made of crayon and could not be washed.

When I were ten my mother went to the country to work at a hotel and taken me with her. And there I went to a country school. The following year she went to Middletown, New York to work in a private family.

At the age of fourteen I went to work for Mr. James Gavin on his farm which was on the order of a summer resort. The work was light and we were done early in the evenings. After supper one night Mr. Gavin set down to read his paper and fell asleep. While he were sleeping I sketched him. And left the paper on the table in the kitchen. He woke up and saw the drawing and asked me who did it. I said I did. He wanted to send me to school where I could take up drawing, but I left his farm before he had a chance to, because my mother was sick and I had to go to Goshen to her. And this was the ending of my school days. Because I had to hunt work to take care of my mother. She was living in the old Mill House.

I am now fifteen years old, and my first job was unloading coal at the coal yard. I went from the coal yard to a feed store. And from job to job. Until I heard that they wanted a porter at the St Elmo's Hotel. I got the job as porter and I am now eighteen. Some of my friends told me, after hearing where I was going to work, that I wouldn't stay there three weeks. But I was there for seven years. During this time my mother died. The year she died was 1911.

The following year I went to Paterson, New Jersey and worked for the Fidelity Storage House, on their moving vans, and packed furniture for shipping all over the United States. In 1916 I went to Wawa, New Jersey and worked for the American Brakeshoe Company. There is where I had the opportunity to learn to be a moulder. But in March 1917 I gave two weeks notice to quit. On my last day I was called to the head office and the superintendent said to me, you have your applications in for winding up today. I said yes Sir! And you are going into the Army aren't you? I said yes, I am going with the fifteenth New York regiment. He said if you come back your job will be waiting for you and I wish you good luck and God's speed. On the fifteenth day of July 1917 we went to Camp Whitman then to Camp Dix and then to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina. Then back to New York to sail. We went aboard the ship Pocohantas at Hoboken. We were a day at sea when something happened to the driving bar, and we had to turn around and come back. It took a month for the repairs and while they were making the repairs we stayed at the armory in New York City located on 133rd Street. After a month we again boarded the ship and this time we were headed for France. They discovered fire in the coal bin and we had to return to Hoboken. Finally on December 3rd we went aboard again. Layed in the Harbor all night but during the night a blizzard came up and the wind was fierce. At twelve o'clock I had my guards posted. And went in to roll a cigarette. During the time I was rolling the cigarette, the Hawk hit us, throwing me against the side of the cabin with such a shock, I didn't know what had happened. In a few seconds sailors was running to and fro. I asked one what was the matter and he told me that the coal hawk had struck us on the port side above the water line. They worked all night cementing and boarding the hole up. This was Dec. 4th and Dec. 5th the ship was repaired and we got under way. We were fourteen days at sea. Dec. 27th we landed at Brest. We took a train from Brest to St. Nazaire. Here we were put to work constructing a huge rail road yard, and building roads and unloading ships. In January our third battalion was ordered to Colquidan. At this place there is a big American artillery camp. Also there was a large German prison camp and it was for this purpose we were there, to guard the prison camp. We were there three weeks. And we got orders to join the rest of our regiment at Givry-en-Argonne. There to be formally transferred to the French high command and to be known as the 369th Regiment. After a month's training learning the French rifle, the 369th was sent into action in Bois-d'Hauze, Champagne. We stayed there until July 4th 1918. Our ranks were thinned by the deadly German fire. We were completely worn out. We were relieved by the fourth French Chasseurs-a-pied. After resting behind the lines for a few weeks we went to Minancourt near Butte-de Mesnil. Here's where we bore the brunt of the German attack of July 15th. This section was very pretty, rolling hills and peaked mountains and I made several sketches of them but I had to destroy them. I did this all through the war.

Early in September the 369th was transferred from the 16th French division in which we had been serving and made an integral part of the 161st French division. On the morning of September 26th we joined with the Moroccans on our left and the native French on our right. Here we had it hard. I was made corporal in Camp Dix and it was my duty to be at a listening post every night until relieved. The listening post is a sacrifice concern. They only send three men and a corporal. There is no correspondence at the listening post after midnight. The runner comes and gets your report at midnight and returns to the main trench. After that there is no more correspondence regardless.

Some time in July one of the strangest things happened. We were planning to go on a raid. They didn't force any one to go, it was all voluntary. The zero hour had been posted at 12 o'clock. At 11:30 we were at the P. C. getting our final instructions. While we were there a boy in the outfit looked weary and funny, some time he looked like he was scared through, then again he looked like every nerve was shaking. I never saw a man like this before. I asked him what was wrong. His eyes all but bulged out of his head, he said I am not coming back. I told him that he didn't have to go into this raid. He volunteered himself. And if you are sick you can be exempted, but he said no I am going through with it but I am not coming back. We left the P. C. quarter to twelve. It was the worse fifteen minutes I ever put in, watching this boy. We were on our way to our starting point. We arrived in our places about one minute before the artillery began to fire. As soon as they did we jumped over the top for the enemy trenches. Five minutes after we were back in our trenches again with two German prisoners. And the boy didn't come back as he said. A German had run him through. He foretold his end. I often think of him in this respect. I have seen men die in all forms and shapes, but never one who knew like he did.

They kept moving us from place to place. Rumors were going around that we were going to have a big drive. They would wake you up at midnight and put you on the road and God would know where we were going because we didn't. Finally we landed in a large field. The first thing we did was to put up our pup tents. We just got them up when it started to rain. All barns, houses and everything was taken up, there wasn't any place for us to camp but in the field. We were there for a week and it rained every day. For months I didn't know what day it was or what month it was and at this present time I couldn't tell, but the weather acted like October. The time came when we were to give up everything that we had, extra shirts, pants and shoes. We only had two blankets, tooth brush and tooth paste and we started out for the Champagne sector that morning. At noon we reached an old abandoned coal mine and stayed in there until night when we came out the stars were shining pretty, stopping only to get ammunition. We go into the front line trenches, spread out men shoulder to shoulder as far as you could see, hub to hub, all kinds and makes. Then word got out that we were going over the top at daybreak, that was confirmed by our Lieutenant. We got as much sleep as we could until the zero hour. Then the artillery opened up and you would have thought the world was coming to an end. The zero hour for the artillery had come. To see those shells bursting in the night was a pretty sight. But the gas, dust and smoke was terrible. At daybreak we went over the top. We advanced until around noon, and the artillery moved up and began firing again. Then we started another advancement and by night we laid along the crest of a hill where the enemy had plenty of machine guns and they swept that hill all night long. At daybreak we were to start our advancement again, but the machine gun fire was so great we had to change our position and get to a flank to get over the hill. Men laying all over wounded and dead, some was being carried. We wished we could help the wounded but we couldn't. We had to leave them there and keep advancing ducking from shell hole to shell hole all day. That night I counted fourteen machine gun nests out of order in our path. The next morning came like the rest, but the machine gun fire wasn't as heavy as it was the morning before. But the snipers were plentiful. I remember spotting a shell hole and made a run for it. Just as I was within three feet and getting ready to dive in I were hit in the shoulder. There was four in the shell hole. One bound my wound the best he could and they all left me alone. I thought I could crawl out and get to a first aid station but a sniper kept me in the hole so long that I lost too much blood to get out on my own power. It was late in the afternoon when the French snipers came by. One stopped at the shell hole where I was shot and I beckoned to him to get down and tried to explain that the sniper was there and would get him. While I was trying to explain to him, a bullet passed through his head and it didn't even knock his helmet off. And he stood there for at least ten seconds before he slipped down and when he did slid down on top of me I had lost so much blood by this time I couldn't even move him. After a while a French sergeant came by and was surprised to see his buddy dead. I motioned to him to get down and he did. He sat in the shell hole with me and told another man to get the sniper. A minute after that I heard the French rifle and knew the sniper wasn't there any more. He came back, said that he got him. Two stretcher bearer came by and got me out of the hole and laid me along a path. It started to rain that morning about nine and it rained all day and at night it increased. My stretcher was full of water. About ten o'clock that night reenforcements [sic] were coming up. I could hear them splashing in the mud some nearly stepped dead on me. Finally the reinforcements had taken over this sector and sent their stretcher bearers after me. I was taken to a dugout. The doctor looked my wound over and I went to sleep. The next morning I woke up and dead men were on both sides of me. They were carrying the wounded out and leaving the dead in the dugout. It was still raining. It wasn't long before a French officer came along with German prisoners and they carried me down to the road where the ambulance could pick us up. Arriving at the field hospital I was operated on. A couple of days after, I went to Leon hospital to Vicky to the Hotel St.-de-Baine which was used as a hospital at that time. Christmas found me in Brest. The day after Christmas we were getting on a transport to come home. This ship was named Northern Pacific which was grounded on a sand bar at Far Island, New Jersey. It were a hospital ship. We were supposed to be in New York on New Year's Day 1919. But we got there January 5th 1919. We went to Far Hill Hospital and from there to Long Beach, Long Island and from there to Fort Ontario, Lake Ontario where I was discharged May 22nd 1919. My right arm was bound to me. I could not use it for anything. But my mind runs back to the sketches I had made in France which I had to destroy. I married in 1920, November 21st.

One winter, I tried to write my story of some of my experiences but did such an unsuccessful job I gave it up. Then I started to make drawings on wood panels ten years after my discharge. Still my arm and shoulder were so weak I could not work long at a time, but I kept trying. One day I decided to get some oil paint and I started the picture that was in my mind, "The Ending of the War Staring Home," and made others until my work was discovered by Dr. Christian Brinton. This is my life's story from 1888-1940.

PIPPIN'S LIFE

A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY

Source | Selden Rodman, Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America, (New York: The Quadrangle Press, 1947), 77.
Creator | Horace Pippin
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Horace Pippin, “An African-American Artist Tells His Life's Story,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 21, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/588.

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