Mollie Williams was eighty-three when she was interviewed in 1937. Though she was only eleven years old when abolition came, she recalled memories and songs from the days of slavery. Ms. Williams’ story isn’t too atypical for a former slave of her age. She attributes her young age to why she was never whipped, though it may have been because she was too clever to be caught in the various mischief that children find themselves in.
Her mother and father, Mammy and Pappy, were not married, but bought by the Davenport and Newsome families for the sole purpose of breeding them like livestock. Ms. Williams’ narrative shows that the scars from slavery were much more than physical.
The story in her own words follows:
A Start of Darkies
You see, Marse George come off down here from Virginia like young folks venturing about, and married Miss Margurite and wanted to start up living right over there near Utica where I was born. But Marse Geore was poor, and he sure found out you can’t make no crop without a start of darkies. So he wrote home to Virginia for to get some darkies. All they sent him was four mens and old Aunt Harriet for to cook.
One day, Marse George and his Uncle, Mr. John Devenport – now there was a rich man for you, why he had two carriage drivers – they road over to Grand Gulf where they was a selling slaves off of the block, and Mr. John told Marse George to pick himself out a pair of darkies to mate so he could get himself a start of darkies for to chop his cotton and like.
So Marse George pick out my papper first. My pappy come from North Carolina. Then he seen my mammy and she was big and strengthy and he wanted her powerful bad. But like I told you, he didn’t have enough money to buy them both, so his Uncle John say he’d buy Mammy and then he would loan her over to Marse George for Pappy. And the first child would be Mr. John’s, and the second, Marse George’s, and likewise. Mammy was a Missourian named Marylin Napier Davenport. And Pappy was named Martin Newsom.
Darkies lived in little old log houses with dirt chimnies. That is, the rest of the darkies did. They kept me up in the Big House, being mammyless like. Mostly I slept in the trundle bed with Miss Mary Jane till I got so big they had to make a pallet on the floor for me. There was Mr. Bryant, Mr. A.D., Miss Martha, Miss Ann, Miss Helen, Miss Mary Jane, and Mr. George, all belonging to Marse George and Miss Margurite.
Basics of Life
Mammy was a field hand. She could plow and work in the fields just like a man. And my Pappy, he done the same. Mammy, she hated house work – like me. I just naturally loves to be out running round in the fields and about. I never liked to do work round the house, none at all.
We wore lowell clothes and brass toed brogans. 1Lowell clothes were pre-made and notoriously ill-fitting. Brass toed brogans were shoes with brass toes – not quite one size fits all, but close to it. Miss Margurite made our dresses and like, and after Aunt Harriet died, she done the cooking too for all the slaves and the family. She fixed up dinner for the field hands, and I took it to them. Marse George had an old powder horn he blowed mornins for to get the darkies up for day good, and they come in about sundown.
We growed corn and taters and cotton plentiful, and we had grand orchards and penders. 2Penders = peanuts. Then, sheeps and hogs and cows and like.
Miss Margurite had a piano, and accordian, and flutens, and a fiddle. She could play a fiddle good as a man. Lord, I heard many as three fiddles going in that house many a time. And I can just see her little old fair hands now, playing just as fast as lightning a tune about:
‘My father he cried, my mother she cried,
I wasn’t out for the army.
O, Captain Gink, my horse me think,
But feed his horse on corn and beans
And support the gals by any means!
Cause I’m a Captain in the army.’
All us children begged her to play that and we all sing and dance, great goodness . . One song I remember Mammy singing:
‘Let me nigh, be my cry, Give me Jesus.
You may have all this world, But give me Jesus.’
Singing and shouting. She had religion all right. She belonged to old Farrett back in Missouri.
We didn’t get sick much but Mammy made yellow top tea for chills and fever and give us. 3Yellow top tea is made of dogfennel. Then if it didn’t do no good Miss Marguerite called for Dr. Hunt like she done when her own children were sick.
None of the darkies on that place could read or write. Guess Miss Helen and Miss Ann would have learned me but I was just so bad and didn’t like to set still no longer than I had to.
Every Time the Strap Hit Him
I seen plenty of darkies whipped. Master George buckled my Mammy down and whipped her when she ran off. Once when Master George seen Pappy stealing a bucket of molasses and toting it to a gal on another place he whipped him, but didn’t stake him down. Pappy told him to whip him but not to stake him, he’d stand for it without the staking, so I remember he looked like he was jumping a rope and hollering, “Pray Master,” every time the strap hit him.
I heard about some people what nailed their darkies ears to a tree and beat them, but I never seen one whipped that way.
I never got no whippings from Master George cause he didn’t whip the children none. Little darky children played along with the white children. If the old house is still there I expect you can find mud cakes up under the house what we made out of eggs we stole from the hen nests. Then we milked just anybody’s cows we could catch and churn it. All time into some mischief.
There was plenty of dancing among the darkies on Master George’s place and on ones nearby.They danced reels and like in the moonlight:
‘Mamma’s got the whopping cough, Daddy’s got the measels,
That’s where the money goes, Pop goes the weasel!’
‘Buffalo gals, can’t you come out tonight,
Come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon?’
‘Gennie put the kettle on, Sally boil the water strong,
Gennie put the kettle on, and let’s have tea.’
‘Run tell Coleman, Run tell everybody,
that the niggers is arising
Run nigger run, the patrollers catch you,
Run nigger run, for it’s almost day,
The nigger run, the nigger flew;
the nigger lost his big old shoe.’
Brother Runs off with the Yankees
When the war come, Master George went to fight back in Virginia. Us all thought the Yankees was some kind of devils and we was scared to death of them.
One day Miss Mary Jane, Helen, and me was playing and we seen mens all dressed in blue coats with brass buttons on they bosoms riding on big fine horses, drive right up to our porch and say to Aunt Delia where she was sweeping:
‘Good morning Madam, no mens about?’
When she told them no mens was about they ask for the keys to the smoke house and went out and helped they selfs and loaded they wagons. Then they went out in the pasture amongst the sheeps and killed off some of them. Next they went in the buggy house and all together struck down the carriage so as we never could use it no more. Yes sir, they done right smart of mischief around there.
Some of the darkies went off with the Yankees. My brother Howard did and we ain’t heard tell of him since. I’ll tell you about it. You see Mr. Davenport owned him and when he heard about the Yankees coming this way he sent his white driver and Howard in the carriage with all his valuables to the swamp to hide, and while they was there the white driver he went off to sleep and Howard was prowling around and we all just reckoned he went off with the Yankees.
Pappy and Mammy
You mean hoo doo? That’s what my Pappy done to my Mammy. You see they was always fussing about first one thing, then another, and Mammy got so mad cause Pappy slipped her clothes out of her chest and taken them over to other gals for to dance in, and when he brought them back Mammy would see fingerprints on them where he’d been turning them around, and she sure be made and fight him. She could lick him, too, cause she was bigger.
One day Pappy come in and say to Mammy, ‘Does you want to be bigger and stronger than what you already is?’ And Mammy say she did. So next day he brought her a little bottle of something blood red and something looked like a gourd seed in the middle of it and he told her to drink it if she wanted to be really strong. From the first drink she fell off instead of walking off, she just stumbled and got worse and worse until she plumb lost her mind. For a long time they had to tie her to a tree.
After the War
Then after the war she left Mr. Davenport and just traveled about over the country. I stayed on with Miss Marguerite helping her just like I had been doing. One day Mammy came after me and I run and hid under a pile of quilts, and liked to have smothered to death waiting for her to go on off.
Next time she come she brung a written letter to Miss Marguerite from the Freeman’s Board and took me with her. We just went from place to place till I got married and settled down for myself. I had three children but ain’t none of them living now.
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 [ + ]
|1.||⇡||Lowell clothes were pre-made and notoriously ill-fitting. Brass toed brogans were shoes with brass toes – not quite one size fits all, but close to it.|
|2.||⇡||Penders = peanuts.|
|3.||⇡||Yellow top tea is made of dogfennel.|