Now any one will agree with me that it is entirely absurd for two men to fall out about their names; but then, circumstances alter cases. It had its beginning in 1863, and it has just ended.
In the first place, Ike and Jim had been good friends on the plantation, but when the time came for them to leave and seek homes for themselves each wanted a name. The master’s name was Johnson, and they both felt themselves entitled to it. When Ike went forth to men as Isaac Johnson, and Jim, not to be outdone, became James Johnsonham, the rivalry began. Each married and became the father of a boy who took his father’s name.
When both families moved North and settled in Little Africa their children had been taught that there must be eternal enmity between them on account of their names, and just as lasting a friendship on every other score. But with boys it was natural that the rivalry should extend to other things. When they went to school it was a contest for leadership both in the classroom and in sports, and when Isaac Johnson left school to go to work in the brickyard, James Johnsonham, not to be outdone in industry, also entered the same field of labor.
Later, it was questioned all up and down Douglass Street, which, by the way, is the social centre of Little Africa–as to which of the two was the better dancer or the more gallant beau. It was a piece of good fortune that they did not fall in love with the same girl and bring their rivalry into their affairs of the heart, for they were only men, and nothing could have kept them friends. But they came quite as near it as they could, for Matilda Benson was as bright a girl as Martha Mason, and when Ike married her she was an even-running contestant with her friend, Martha, for the highest social honors of their own particular set.
It was a foregone conclusion that when they were married and settled they should live near each other. So the houses were distant from each other only two or three doors. It was because every one knew every one else’s business in that locality that Sandy Worthington took it upon himself to taunt the two men about their bone of contention.
“Mr. Johnson,” he would say, when, coming from the down-town store where he worked, he would meet the two coming from their own labors in the brickyard, “how are you an’ Mistah Johnsonham mekin’ it ovah yo’ names?”
“Well, I don’ know that Johnsonham is so much of a name,” Ike would say; and Jim would reply: “I ‘low it’s mo’ name than Johnson, anyhow.”
“So is stealin’ ham mo’ than stealin’,” was the other’s rejoinder, and then his friends would double up with mirth.
Sometimes the victorious repartee was Jim’s, and then the laugh was on the other side. But the two went at it all good-naturedly, until one day, one foolish day, when they had both stopped too often on the way home, Jim grew angry at some little fling of his friend’s, and burst into hot abuse of him. At first Ike was only astonished, and then his eyes, red with the dust of the brick-field, grew redder, the veins of his swarthy face swelled, and with a “Take that, Mistah Johnsonham,” he gave Jim a resounding thwack across the face.
It took only a little time for a crowd to gather, and, with their usual tormentor to urge them on, the men forgot themselves and went into the fight in dead earnest. It was a hard-fought battle. Both rolled in the dust, caught at each other’s short hair, pummeled, bit and swore. They were still rolling and tumbling when their wives, apprised of the goings on, appeared upon the scene and marched them home.