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Interviewer: Grace McCune
Person Interviewed: Benny Dillard
Location: Athens, Georgia
Benny’s rocky little yard is gay with flowers and a flourishing rose vine shades the small porch at the front of his ramshackle two-room cabin. The old Negro was busily engaged at washing his clothes. He is of medium size, darker than gingerbread in color, and his clothing on this day consisted of a faded blue shirt, pants adorned with many patches, and brogans. A frayed sun hat covered the gray hair that is “gittin’ mighty thin on de top of my haid.”
Benny was singing as he worked and his quavering old voice kept tune and rhythm to a remarkable degree as he carefully and distinctly pronounced:
“Jesus will fix it for you,
Just let Him have His way
He knows just how to do,
Jesus will fix it for you.”
Almost in the same breath he began another song:
“All my sisters gone,
Mammy and Daddy too
Whar would I be if it warn’t
For my Lord and Marster.”
About this time he looked up and saw his visitor. Off came the old sun hat as he said: “‘Scuse me, Missy, I didn’t know nobody was listenin’ to dem old songs. I loves to sing ‘em when I gits lonesome and blue. But won’t you come up on my porch and have a cheer in de shade? Dere’s a good breeze on dat little porch.” Having placed a chair for the visitor and made himself comfortable on a crude bench, Benny began his story:
“Missy, de good Lord gives and he takes away, and us old darkies is a-passin’ out of dis world. Dat was why I was a-singin’. One of my bestest friends done passed on to Glory dis very mornin’. I knows I’se goin’ to miss old Randal Clayton ’cause both of us warn’t no good but for to set and talk ’bout old times.” Tears rolled down his face as he told of his friend, and the visitor, fearful that he was too much overcome by grief to be able to give a good story, suggested that another engagement be made to record his reminiscences, but he objected. “Lawsy, Missy!” he protested. “Please don’t go now, for dem old times is on my mind today and I would so love to talk ’bout ‘em now, if you don’t mind. If I talks too much, jus’ tell me, ’cause I’se mighty apt to do dat when onct I gits started.
“My Mammy and Daddy, dey warn’t from dis part of de country. My Mammy said dat not long atter she got to America from a trip on de water dat took nigh 6 months to make, dey brung her from Virginny and sold her down here in Georgy when she was jus’ ’bout 16 years old. De onliest name she had when she got to Georgy was Nancy. I don’t know whar my Daddy come from. Him and Mammy was both sold to Marse Isaac Dillard and he tuk ‘em to live on his place in Elbert County, close to de place dey calls Goose Pond. Dey lived at home on dat big old plantation. By dat, I means dat Marse Isaac growed evvything needed to feed and clothe his folks ‘cept de little sugar, coffee, and salt dey used. I don’t ‘member so much ’bout times ‘fore de big war ’cause I warn’t but 6 years old when us was made free. Tellin’ de slaves dey was free didn’t make much diff’unce on our place, for most of ‘em stayed right on dar and wukked wid Old Marster jus’ lak dey allus done. Dat plantation was jus’ lak a little town, it was so big and it had evvything us wanted and needed.
“Slaves lived in log cabins what had red mud daubed in de cracks ‘twixt de logs. De roofs was made out of boards what had so many cracks ‘twixt ‘em, atter a few rains made ‘em swink (shrink), dat us could lay in bed and see de stars through dem big holes. Even if us did have leaky houses, folkses didn’t git sick half as much as dey does now. Our homemade beds was made out of rough planks nailed to high poles; leastways de poles was high for de headpieces, and a little lower for de footpieces. For most of dem beds, planks was nailed to de wall for one long side and dere was two laigs to make it stand straight on de other long side. Dey never seed no metal springs dem days but jus’ wove cords back and forth, up and down and across, to lay de mattress on. I never seed no sto’-bought bed ’til atter I was married. Bedticks was made out of homespun cloth stuffed wid wheatstraw, and sometimes dey slept on rye or oatstraw. Pillows was stuffed wid hay what had a little cotton mixed in it sometimes. Atter a long day of wuk in de fields, nobody bothered ’bout what was inside dem pillows. Dey slept mighty good lak dey was. Dey fixed planks to slide across de inside of de holes dey cut out for windows. De doors swung on pegs what tuk de place of de iron hinges dey uses dese days. Dem old stack chimblies was made out of sticks and red mud.
“De fireplaces was a heap bigger dan dey has now, for all de cookin’ was done in open fireplaces den. ‘Taters and cornpone was roasted in de ashes and most of de other victuals was biled in de big old pots what swung on cranes over de coals. Dey had long-handled fryin’ pans and heavy iron skillets wid big, thick, tight-fittin’ lids, and ovens of all sizes to bake in. All of dem things was used right dar in de fireplace. Dere never was no better tastin’ somepin t’eat dan dat cooked in dem old cook-things in open fireplaces.
“Chillun never had no wuk to do. Dey jus’ et and frolicked around gittin’ into evvything dey could find. Dey never got no lickin’s ‘less dey was mighty bad, ’cause our Marster said he warn’t gwine to ‘low no beatin’ on his Niggers ‘cept what he done his own self, and dat was pow’ful little. In hot weather chillun played on de crick and de best game of all was to play lak it was big meetin’ time. White chillun loved to play dar too wid de little slave chillun. Us would have make-believe preachin’ and baptizin’ and de way us would sing was a sight. One of dem songs us chillun loved de best went lak dis:
‘Why does you thirst
By de livin’ stream?
And den pine away
And den go to die.
‘Why does you search
For all dese earthly things?
When you all can
Drink at de livin’ spring,
And den can live.’
“When us started playin’ lak us was baptizin’ ‘em, us th’owed all us could ketch right in de crick, clothes and all, and ducked ‘em. Whilst us was doin’ dat, us was singin’:
‘Git on board, git on board
For de land of many mansions,
Same old train dat carried
My Mammy to de Promised Land.’
“One day our Marster hid in de trees and watched us ’cause Mist’ess had done been fussin’ down ’bout chillun all comin’ in soaked to de hide. He waited ’til he seed all de preachin’ and baptizin’, den he hollered for us to stop and he tuk de ones what was doin’ all de baptizin’ and made ‘em pray and sing, den he ducked ‘em good in de water and made us all go up to de house to show Mist’ess how come so many of dem pore chillun had done been gittin’ wet so much. Us got a tannin’ den dat Marster ‘lowed would help us to git sho’ ‘nough ‘ligion.
“De wooden bowls what slave chillun et out of was made out of sweetgum trees. Us et wid mussel shells ‘stid of spoons. Dem mussel shells was all right. Us could use ‘em to git up plenty of bread and milk, or cornpone soaked wid peas and pot likker. Dey never let chillun have no meat ’til dey was big enough to wuk in de fields. Us had biscuit once a week, dat was Sunday breakfast, and dem biscuits was cakebread to us. De fust bought meat us chillun ever seed was a slab of side-meat Daddy got from de sto’ atter us had done left de plantation, and us was skeered to eat it ’cause it warn’t lak what us had been used to.
“Chillun jus’ wore one piece of clothes in summertime and dey all went bar’foots. De gals’ summer gyarment was a plain, sleeveless apron dress, and de boys wore skimpy little shirts and nothin’ else. Dey mixed cow-hair wid de cotton when dey wove de cloth to make our winter clothes out of, and I’m a-tellin’ you Missy, dat cow-hair cloth sho’ could scratch, but it was good and warm and Marster seed to it dat us had all de clothes us needed. De ‘omans made all de cloth used on de place; dey cyarded, spun, and den wove it. Mammy was de weaver; dat was all she done, jus’ wove cloth. Dey dyed it wid red mud and ink balls, and sich lak.
“Marster never lakked to git up real early hisself in slavery time, so he had one man what got de Niggers up out of bed so early dat dey had done et breakfast and was in de field when daylight come. Atter de war was over and evvybody was free, all de Niggers used to jus’ piddle and play ’round evvy mornin’ whilst dey was waitin’ for Marster to come. Dem and de mules would be jus’ a-standin’ still and when de word was passed dat Marster had done got up all of ‘em would start off wid a rush, jus’ a-hollerin’: ‘Whoa, dar! Gee haw!’ jus’ lak dey had done been wukkin’ hard all mornin’. One day Marster cotch ‘em at it, and he didn’t say a word ’til time come to pay off, and he tuk out for all de time dey had lost.
“Sometimes slaves run away and hid out in caves. Dey would pile up rocks and sticks and pine limbs to hide de caves, and sometimes dey would stay hid out for weeks, and de other Niggers would slip ‘em somepin t’eat at night. Dere warn’t many what run off on our place, ’cause our Marster was so good to all of ‘em dat dere warn’t nothin’ to run from.
“Marster made all his wuk tools at home. Plow-sheers was made out of wood trimmed to de right shape and fastened to a iron point. When dey was plowin’ in de young cotton, dey nailed a board on one side of de plow to rake de dirt back up ’round de cotton plants.
“Marster’s gin was turned by a mule. Dat big old gin wheel had wooden cogs what made de gin wuk when de old mule went ’round and ’round hitched to dat wheel. Dat old cotton press was a sight. Fust dey cut down a big old tree and trimmed off de limbs and made grooves in it for planks to fit in. It was stood up wid a big weight on top of it, over de cotton what was to be pressed. It was wukked by a wheel what was turned by a mule, jus’ lak de one what turned de gin. A old mule pulled de pole what turned de syrup mill too. Missy, dem old mules done deir part ‘long side de Niggers dem days, and Marster seed dat his mules had good keer too. When dem mules had done turned de mill ’til de juice was squez out of de sugarcane stalks, dey strained dat juice and biled it down ’til it was jus’ de finest tastin’ syrup you ever did see. Marster’s mill whar he ground his wheat and corn was down on de crick, so de water could turn de big old wheel.
“Dem old cornshuckin’s was sho’ ‘nough big times, ’cause us raised so much corn dat it tuk several days to shuck it all. Us had to have two generals. Dey chose sides and den dey got up on top of de biggest piles of corn and kept de slaves a-singin’ fast so dey would wuk fast. De fust crowd what finished got de prize. Dere ain’t much I can ‘member of words to dem old cornshuckin’ songs. One general would start off singin’: ‘Shuck up dis corn, shuck up dis corn, ’cause us is gwine home,’ and de other general would be a-shoutin’: ‘Make dem shucks fly, make dem shucks fly, us is gwine to go home.’ Over and over dey kept on singin’ dem lines. Come nighttime Marster would have big bonfires built up and set out torches for ‘em to see how to wuk, and evvy time he passed ’round dat jug of corn likker shucks would fly some faster. When all de corn was done shucked and de big supper had been et, dere was wrastlin’ matches and dancin’ and all sorts of frolickin’.
“‘Til dey could git a colored preacher, slaves had to go to church wid deir white folks. Missy, I ‘members yit, de fust preacher I ever heared. He was a white man, Preacher Gibson dey called him, and his sermons made you mind what you was ’bout ’cause he preached straight from de Bible. Dat day when I fust heared him his text was: ‘If you gits lost in sin, den you is lost from God’s word, and will have to be borned again.’ Dat’s de trufe, Missy, it sho’ is. Young folks dese days is headed plumb straight for ‘struction, ’cause dey won’t listen to de Gospel. If dey don’t change from de way dey is goin’ now de old debbil is gwine to ketch ‘em sho. All of us had better mind what us is ’bout, for ‘ligion most times now is by our own minds and thoughts, and somebody else is apt to follow de ‘ligion he sees in us. De Bible says to teach young folks de way dey should go, and dey won’t depart from deir raisin’. You sho’ can’t raise ‘em right by jus’ teachin’ ‘em dese days; it evermore do take plenty of layin’ on of dat rod. I would jus’ lak to see how dese young folks would lak it if dey had to ride for miles and miles in a oxcart, or else walk it, to git to ‘tend church. Dere wouldn’t be many of de ones I knows ’round here would git dar. Us used to have four steers hitched to our old cart, and it was slow-goin’, but us got dar.
“Atter us got our own churches us still had to have white preachers for a long time and den us was ‘lowed to have colored preachers. When somebody wanted to jine our church us ‘zamined ‘em, and if us didn’t think dey was done ready to be tuk in de church, dey was told to wait and pray ’til dey had done seed de light. Anybody can jine up wid de church now, Missy, and it ain’t right de way dey lets ‘em come in widout ‘zaminin’ ‘em. De good Lord sho’ don’t lak dat way of handlin’ His church business. One of dem cand-i-dates was a mean Nigger and our preacher and deacons wouldn’t let him in our church. Den he went over to another church and told ‘em dat he had talked wid de Lord ’bout how us wouldn’t let him jine up wid us, and he ‘lowed dat de Lord said to him: ‘Dat’s all right. I done been tryin’ to jine up in dat church for 15 years myself, and can’t git in, so you go on and jine another church.’ Dat other church let dat bad Nigger in and it warn’t long ‘fore dey had to turn him out, ’cause he warn’t fittin’ to be in no church.
“Our preacher used to give us parables. One of ‘em was lak dis: ‘I’se seed good cotton growin’ in de grass.’ He ‘splained it dat dere was some good in de wust sinners. Another of his parables was: ‘If you can’t keep up wid de man at de foot, how is you gwine to keep up wid de higher-up folks?’ Dat meant if you can’t sarve God here below, how is you gwine to git along wid him if you gits to Heben? Our preacher told us to sarve both our marsters. De fust Marster was God, he said, and de other one was our white marster.
“I ain’t never been inside no courtroom and don’t never ‘spect to be dar, ’cause, missy, I don’t mind nobody’s business but my own, and dat’s all I can do.
“No Mam, I don’t never git much sick. I had a bad old haid cold last winter, but I stopped dat wid coal oil and by breathin’ in smoke from scorched leather. Light’ood splinter tea is helpful when I has a chist cold. Salts ain’t de best thing for old folks to be doctored wid. I takes common cookin’ soda sweetened wid a little sugar. Dem is old-time doses from way back in de old days, and I still use ‘em all.
“Durin’ of de war time, soda and salt was both hard to git. Dey biled down de dirt from under old smokehouses to git salt, and soda was made out of burnt corncobs. You would be s’prised what cookin could be done wit dat old corncob soda.
“Us wukked for Mr. Green Hubbard de fust year us left de old plantation, but he wouldn’t pay us so us left him and rented some land to farm. Den I went to wuk for Mr. Stephens and stayed wid him 25 years. He was one of de owners of de Georgy Railroad and I used to drive for him when he went to ‘Gusty (Augusta) to dem board meetin’s. He had one of dem old-time gins what run by mule power, and us sho’ did gin a heap of cotton. Lots of times he had us to haul it all de way to ‘Gusty on dem wagons. Mr. Stephens’ place was at Crawford, Georgy.
“Me and my gal runned away to git married. If you please, Mam, come inside and look at her pitcher. Ain’t she a fine lookin’ gal? Well, she was jus’ as good as she looks. I keeps her pitcher hangin’ right over my bed so as I can look at her all de time.” The small room was tidy and clean. In one corner a narrow, single bed, neatly made, stood beneath the picture of Benny’s wife, Mary. The picture showed a young woman dressed in white in the style of the period when tight waists and enormous puffed sleeves were in vogue. An old washstand supporting a huge mirror, a small table, evidently used as a dining table, two chairs, a small cupboard filled with dishes, and a small, wood-burning stove completed the furnishings of the room. Back on the porch again, Benny resumed the story of his marriage.
“Her daddy wouldn’t ‘gree for us to git married ’cause he wanted her to stay on and wuk for him. She warn’t but seventeen. My boss-man let us use his hoss and buggy and, Missy, dat fast hoss is what saved de day for us. When I got to whar I was to meet her, I seed her runnin’ down de road wid her daddy atter her fast as he could go on foot. I snatched her up in dat buggy and it seemed lak dat hoss knowed us was in a hurry ’cause he sho’ did run. Squire Jimmie Green married us and when us got back to my boss-man’s house her daddy had done got dar and was a-raisin’ cane. Boss Stephens, he come out and told her daddy to git on ‘way from dar and let us ‘lone, ’cause us was done married and dere warn’t nothin’ could be done ’bout it. Us had a hard time gittin’ started housekeepin’, ’cause my daddy couldn’t holp us none. Our bed was one of dem home-made ones nailed to de side of de house. Us lived together 43 years ‘fore de Lord tuk her home to Heben 15 years ago. Dem 43 years was all of ‘em happy years. Since she’s been gone I’se mighty lonesome, but it won’t be long now ’til I see her, for I’se ready to go whenever de Good Lord calls me.”