LEXINGTON, Miss. — The cast-iron bell that once summoned Fannye Booker to the cotton fields stands at the entrance to the Booker-Thomas Museum, her personal tribute to those who toiled beside her and eventually fled the South.
"When everybody else went away, that left me here," said Booker, a thin woman of 80 who established the unusual museum beside her home.
Her collection of snuff bottles, sausage squeezers, muskets and other household items stands in contrast with the elegant trappings of life in the white man's mansions of the Old South.
As she strolled through her museum early one recent morning, her gentle commentary connected the possessions with their former owners.
Stopping at an iron walking stick, she said: "That's a whiskey stick. The man that owned that was an old man and everybody thought he used it as a cane, but he was in business."
She pulled off a cork top to show the cane's hollow interior. "He kept a shot glass in his pocket. He had the stick filled up with whiskey and sold it to people on the street."
Booker, a former teacher and owner of a Lexington boarding home for the elderly, started the museum in 1980 after a lifetime of collecting. More than 3,000 people have toured the one-floor building, excluding schoolchildren, she said.
"When I tell people I don't charge them, that I just do it for the enjoyment of it, they always go and fetch me something," she said.
Family Members Move
She got the idea for the museum when family members began moving out of Mississippi, to places like California, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio.
"I am from a large family and my husband was from a large family," said Booker, whose maiden name was Thomas. "When the big migration came, they left us their things. I couldn't just get rid of it."
Her family was among the millions who left the South in search of jobs as increasing mechanization drove many from the farms. Census figures show that nearly 3 million blacks left the South from 1940 to 1960.
"One way of life ended and another began," said Ron Bailey, director of Afro-American studies at the University of Mississippi.
Sense of History
The stories told by Booker's grandmother, who reared her, gave her a sense of history. Booker said her grandmother was a slave until age 12, when news of freedom came as she was churning butter on the porch.
"She asked her mother what that meant," Booker said. "Her mother said, 'Keep churning.' "
Booker did plenty of churning herself.
"I'd go to sleep churning many times, because you have to churn it until it turns into butter."
In her museum, subdivided like a home, she walked past a railroad lantern, a gold parasol handle, a Thomas A. Edison phonograph, a wine press used to squeeze the juice from muscadines, an eggbeater from the turn of the century, an iron stove, a 1920s Hotpoint oven and a bread bucket.
"That was important," she said, looking at the bread bucket. "If anybody got hungry, as long as there were biscuits in the bread bucket it was fine."
Each object has a story.
The quilt that covers the brass bed was made by her grandmother. The bed belonged to the grandmother of a Holmes County man named Arthur Montgomery, "and you know it goes back because he's 97 years old."
Variety of Jobs
Booker has held a variety of jobs over the years: cashier in a general store, doctor's secretary, farmhand on the first integrated cooperative farm in the 1940s, teacher in Tallahatchie County schools. She worked for the Head Start program from 1964 to 1979 and volunteered for the county Department of Aging Services.
Although many whites attacked the integrated cooperative before the civil rights era, Booker never thought of leaving her native Mississippi.
"If I had been doing something wrong, then I would have had a right to run," she said. "But I wasn't and I didn't.
'You Don't Peddle Hate'
"So many people went bitter so quick. People said, 'This is a white folks thing.' But I have a voice to speak. You don't peddle hate no more."
So she organizes senior-citizens' gatherings, remains active in politics and walks among her museum pieces, reliving the past.
"I'm just as happy with my snuff bottles and my boxes," Booker said. "Now, if I had a couple of thousand dollars, all I would do is spend it. At least here I can do something to make Holmes County better."