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What I do: Christine Banks, 73 

Owner, J.P. Crowder's hams

I bought the business from Mr. Crowder in '65. That first Christmas — October, November and December — we would start at 6 in the morning, and we'd have to lock the doors at 6 at night. The store was full all day long. I bought $5,000 worth of hams. We sold them all. So much so that we had to go to Siegel's Market down on Sixth Street and buy all their hams. Back then people didn't need to have an address to find you, they just knew where you were.

I haven't sold a ham in about five months. Talking about it now makes me want a ham sandwich, not just any ham — our ham.

I have had a few calls for hams for Christmas, not enough to justify me starting cooking again. But I told a customer the other day, "You never say never."

I have done all of this on my own. I didn't ask for advice, and Mr. Crowder didn't give me any. Still, everything I learned, I learned from him — through force. [laughs]

He'd say: "Christine, slice ham."

Well I tried slicing ham, and I said, "Mr. Crowder I'm sorry, but I can't slice the ham." And he said, "Well find yourself another job."

Naturally I went on and learned.

Back then, other than a waitress or a counter girl or an elevator operator or maid — you could count the jobs on your hands for blacks. So I learned how to slice ham. Then Mr. Crowder put me on the books. I was pushed to do it because I needed the job and I had two small children.

I ended up learning everything, almost. I tried to learn how to knock off the coconuts — you take a hatchet and you knock the hull off — but it was too dangerous and hard. So I learned how to do all of the business: bookkeeping, taxes, slicing hams, cooking hams — everything. I learned it the hard way. It paid off for a while. That first year in '65 business was so good I grossed $90,000; this year it's less than $3,000. It just goes to show how easy you can go from top to rock bottom.

This business is a part of me. But at this late date I'm really tired of being in the kitchen over the steam. I would like to find a job with an income, one where I can look a little more presentable and laugh and talk with people like I am now.

— As told to Brandon Walters.

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