You are here

Cora Gillam: Master Sick to Hear that Freedom was Coming

Cora Gillam had been a slave in Mississippi, and was around ten years old when the war began. Her life as a slave and as a free woman was certainly different from most – a fact which most definitely effected her opinions on Reconstruction. At fifteen, she married Isaac Gillam, a slave from Tennessee, who joined the Union army. He went on to serve in the Arkansas General Assembly as both a Republican and Democrat.

This is her story, as told in her own words:

Freedom Made Master Sick

I have never been entirely sure of my age. I have kept it since I was married and they called me fifteen. That was in ’66 or ’67. Anyhow, I’m about 86, and what a difference does one year make, one way or another.

I lived with master and mistress in Greenville, Mississippi. They didn’t have children and kept me in the house with them all the time. Master was always having a bad spell and take to his bed. It always made him sick to hear that freedom was coming closer. He just couldn’t stand to hear about it. I always remember the day he died. It was the fall of Vicksburg. When he took a spell, I had to stand by the bed and scratch his head for him, and fan him with the other hand. He said that scratching pacified him.

Family and Missing Out on Education

No ma’am, oh no indeedy, my father was not a slave. Can’t you tell by me that he was white? My brother and one sister were free folks because their white father claimed them. Brother was in college in Cincinnati and sister was in Oberlin College. My father was Mr. McCarroll of Ohio. He came to Mississippi to be overseer on the plantation of the Warren family where my mother lived. My grandmoster – on mother’s side, was full blood Cherokee. She came from North Carolina.

In early days my mother and her brothers and sisters were stolen from their home in North Carolina and taken to Mississippi and sold for slaves. You know the Indians could follow trails better than other kind of folks, and she tracked her children down and stayed in the south. My mother was only part Negro; so was her brother, my uncle Tom. He seemed all Indian. You know, the Cherokees were peaceable Indians, until you got them mad. Then they was the fiercest fighters of any tribes.

I want to tell you first why I didn’t get eductated up north like my brother and sister. Just about time for me to be born, my pap went to see how they was getting along in school. He left my education money with mama. He sure did want all his children educated. I never saw my father. He died that trip. After awhile, mama married a colored man named Lee. He took my school money and put me in the cotton patch. It was still during the war time when my white folks moved to Arkansas; it was Desha county where they settled.

Now I want to tell you about my uncle Tom. Like I said, he was half Indian. But the Negro part didn’t show hardly any. There was something about uncle Tom that made both white adn black be afraid of him. His master was young, like him. He was named Tom Johnson.

Slaves Was Not Allowed to Read

You see, the Warrens, what own my mother, and the Johnsons, were all sort of one family. Mistress Warren and Mistress Johnson were sisters, and owned everything together. The Johnsons lived in Kentucky, but came to Arkansas to farm. Master Tom taught his slaves to read. They say uncle Tom was the best reader, white or black, for miles. That was what got him in trouble. Slaves was not allowed to read. They didn’t want them to know that freedom was coming. No ma’am! Any time a crowd of slaves gathered, overseers and bushwackers came and chased them; broke up the crowd.

The Indian in uncle Tom made him not scared of anybody. He had a newspaper with latest war news and gathered a crowd of salves to read them when peace was coming. White men say it done to get uprising among slaves. A crow of white gather and take uncle Tom to jail. Twenty of them say they would beat him, each man, till they so tired they can’t lay on one more lick. If he still alive, then they hand him. Wasn’t that awful? Hang a man just because he could read? They had him in jail overnight. His young master got wind of it, and went to save his man.

The Indian in uncle Tom rose. Strength – big extra strength seemed to come to him. First man what opened that door, he leaped on him and laid him out. No white man could stand against him in that Indian fighting spirit. They was scared of him. He almost tore that jailhouse down, lady. Yes he did.

His young master took him that night, but next day the white mob was after him and had him in jail. Then listen to what happened. The Yankees took Helena, and opened up the jails. Everybody so scared they forgot all about hangings and things like that. Then uncle Tom join the Union army; was in the 54th U.S. volunteers (colored) and went to Little Rock. My mama come up here.

You see, so many white folks loaned their slaves to the secessionists to help build forts all over the state. Mama was needed to help cook. They was building forts to protect Little Rock. [Union General Frederick] Steele was coming. The mistress was kind; she took care of me and my sister while mama was gone.

When Slaves Got Free

It was while she was in Little Rock that mama married Lee. After peace they went back to Helena and stayed two years with old mistress. She let them have the use of the farm tools and mules. She put up the cotton and seed corn and food for us. She told us we could work on shares, half and half. You see, ma’am, when slaves got free, they didn’t have nothing but their two hands to start out with. I never heard of any master giving a slave money or land. Most went back to farming on shares. For many years all they got was their food.

Isaac Gillam
Isaac Gillam

Some white folks is so mean. I know what they told us every time when crops would be put by. They said, “Why didn’t you work hard? Look, when the seed is paid for, and all your food and everything, what food you had just squares the account.” Then they take all the cotton we raise, all the hogs, corn, everything. We was just about where we was in slave days.

When we see we never going to make anything share cropping, mother and I went picking. So we saved enough to take us to Little Rock. Went on a boat, I remember, and it took a while week to mak the trip. Just think of that. A whole week between here and Helena. I was married by then. Gillam was a blacksmith by trade and had a good business. But in a little while he got into politics in Little Rock. Yes, lady. If you would look over the old records, you would see where he was made the keeper of the jail. I don’t know how many times he was elected to city council. He was the only colored coroner Pulaski county ever had. He was in the legislature, too. I used to dress up and go out to hear him make speeches.

In and Out of Office

Even after the colored folks got put out of public office, they still kept my husband for a policeman. It was during those days he bought this home. Sixty-seven years we been living right in this place – I guess – when did you say the war had its wind up? It was the only house in a big forest. All my nine children were born right in this house. No ma’am, I never have worked since I came here. My husband always made a good living. I had all I could do caring for those nine children.

When the Democrats came in power, of course all colored men were let out of office. Then my husband went back to his blacksmith trade. He was always interested in breeding fine horses. Kept two fine stallions; one was named “Judge Hill,” the other “Pinchback.” White folks from Kentucky, even, used to come here to buy his colts. Race people in Texas took our colts as fast as they got born. Only recently we heard that stock from our stable was among the best in Texas.

The White Folks, North and Losing the Vote

The Ku Kluxers never bothered us in the least. I think they worked mostly out in the country. We used to hear terrible tales of how they whipped and killed both white and black, for no reason at all. Everybody was afraid of them and scared to go out after dark. They were a strong organization, and secret. I’ll tell you, lady, if the rough element from the north had stayed out of the south the trouble of reconstruction would not happened. Yes ma’am, that’s right. You see, after great disasters like fires and earthquakes and such, always reckless criminal class people come in its wake to rob and pillage. It was like that in the war days. It was that bad element of the north what made the trouble. They tried to incite the colored against their white friends. The white folks was still kind to them what had been their slaves. They would have helped them get started. I know that. I always say that if the south could have been left to adjust itself, both white and colored would been better off. 1This is, of course, incredibly debatable. Some of the best evidence against this idea is what Mrs. Gillam says next.

Now about this voting business. I guess you don’t find any colored folks what think they get a fair deal. I don’t, either. I don’t think it is right that any tax payer should be deprived of the right to vote. Why, even my children that pay poll tax can’t vote. One of my daughters is a teacher in the public school. She tells me they send out notices that if teachers don’t pay a poll tax, they may lose their place. But still they can’t use it and vote in the primary.

My husband always believed in using your voting privilege. He has been dead over 30 years. He had been appointed on the Grand Jury; had bought a new suit of clothes for that. He died on the day he was to go, so we used his new suit to bury him in. I have been getting his soldier’s pension ever since. Yes ma’am, I have not had it hard like lots of ex-slaves.

The original transcript of the interview is here.

To understand a bit more about the process I use to “translate” the interviews, see this.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.