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Interviewer: Sadie B. Hornsby
Person Interviewed: Callie Elder
Location: Athens, Georgia
Callie lives with her daughter, Cornelia, in a 6-room house near the crest of a hill. Their abode is a short distance from the street and is reached by steep stone steps. In response to the call for Callie, a tall mulatto woman appeared. Her crudely fashioned blue dress was of a coarse cotton fabric and her dingy head rag had long lost its original color. Straight black hair, streaked with gray, and high cheek bones gave the impression that in her ancestry of mixed races, Indian characteristics predominate. Her constant use of snuff causes frequent expectoration and her favorite pastime seems to be the endeavor to attain an incredible degree of accuracy in landing each mouthful of the amber fluid at the greatest possible distance. As she was about to begin conversation, a little yellow boy about five years old ran into the room and Callie said: “‘Scuse me please, I can’t talk ’til I gits my grandboy off so he won’t be late to school at Little Knox. Set down in dat dar cheer and I’ll be right back.”
Soon Callie returned and it was evident that her curiosity was aroused. When the interviewer explained the purpose of the visit, she exclaimed: “Lordy! Miss, what is de government gwine do next? For de God’s truth, I never knowed I would have to tell nobody what happened back in dem days, so its jus’ done slipped out of my mind.
“Anyhow, I warn’t even born in Clarke County. I was born in Floyd County, up nigh Rome, Georgia, on Marse Billy Neal’s plantation. Ann and Washin’ton Neal was my Mammy and Pappy. No Ma’am, no preacher never married ‘em. Marse Billy Neal, he owned bofe of ‘em and atter my Pappy axed him could he marry Mammy, Marse Billy made ‘em go up to de hall of de big house and jump backwards over a broom.
“Dere was six of us chillun: me and Frances, Beulah, Thomas, Felix, and Scott. Dere was mighty little wuk done by chillun in slav’ry days. I jus’ played ’round and kicked up my heels wid de rest of de chillun. When us played our hidin’ game, us sung somepin’ lak dis:
‘Mollie, Mollie Bright
Three score and ten,
Can I git dere by candlelight?
Yes, if your laigs is long enough!’
“Sometimes us played what us called de ‘Crow’ game. Us spread our fingers out, side by side and counted ‘em out wid a rhyme. De one de last word of de rhyme fell on had to be de crow. I didn’t love to be counted out and made de crow, but it was a heap of fun to count de others out. Since I been knee high to a grasshopper, I ain’t never done nothin’ but wuk ’round white folks’ houses.
“Our log cabins what us lived in was daubed inside and out wid mud to keep out bad weather. Our beds was held together by cords what was twisted evvy which way. You had to be mighty careful tightenin’ dem cords or de beds was liable to fall down. Us slept on wheat straw mattresses and had plenty of good warm quilts for kiver.
“Grown folks was fed cornbread and meat wid plenty of vegetables in de week days and on Sunday mornin’s dey give ‘em wheat bread, what was somethin’ slaves didn’t see no more ’til de next Sunday mornin’. ‘Bout four o’clock on summer atternoons, dey sot a big old wooden bowl full of cornbread crumbs out in de yard and poured in buttermilk or potliquor ’til de crumbs was kivered. Den dey let de chillun gather ’round it and eat ’til de bowl was empty. In winter chillun was fed inside de house.
“‘Possums, Oh, mussy me! My grandpa hunted ‘possums at night and fetched in two and three at a time. Don’t say nothin’ ’bout dem rabbits for dere warn’t no end to ‘em. Rabbits stewed, rabbits fried, and rabbits dried, smoked, and cured lak hog meat! I et so many rabbits when I was young I can’t stand to look at ‘em now but I could eat ‘possums and gnaw de bones all day long. Marse Billy let grandpa go fishin’ and he was all time bringin’ back a passel of minnows and other fishes. Us rubbed ‘em down wid lard and salt and pepper, den rolled ‘em in cornmeal and baked ‘em. I never seed no fried meat ’til I was a big strappin’ gal. Dere was one big gyarden whar dey raised ‘nough vegetables for all de white folks and slaves too. All de bilin’ was done in pots swung on cranes over coals in de fireplace.
“Our clothes was made new for us in de fall out of cloth wove in looms right dar on de plantation. Top clothes was dyed wid hick’ry bark. De full skirts was gathered to tight fittin’ waisties. Underskirts was made de same way. De dresses had done wore thin ‘nough for hot weather by de time winter was gone so us wore dem same clothes straight on through de summer, only us left off de underskirts den. Slave chillun didn’t never wear no shoes. Our foots cracked open ’til dey looked lak goose foots. Us wore de same on Sunday as evvy day, ‘cept dat our clothes was clean, and stiff wid meal starch when us got into ‘em on Sunday mornin’s.
“Marse Billie Neal was our owner and Miss Peggy was his old ‘oman. Dey was jus’ as good to us as dey could be. Deir two chillun was Marse Tom and Marse Mid. De car’iage driver never had much to do but drive Marse Billy and Miss Peggy ’round and, course he had to see dat de hosses and car’iage was kept clean and shiny. I don’t ‘member if he tuk de chillun ’round. Chillun didn’t stand de show dey does now.
“Oh, no Ma’am, I sho’ can’t tell nothin’ t’all ’bout how big dat old plantation was, but it was one whoppin’ big place. Dere was too many slaves on dat plantation for me to count. De overseer got ‘em up by 4:00 o’clock and de mens had to be in de fields by sunrise. De ‘omans went out ’bout 8:00 o’clock. Dey stopped wuk at sundown and by de time dey et and done de chores for de day it was 10:00 o’clock ‘fore dey hit de bed. De cabins was built in a circle and de overseer went de rounds evvy night to see if de slaves was in bed.
“Yes Ma’am, dey whupped de Niggers. My Pappy and grandpa was de wust ones ’bout gittin’ licked. Evvy time Pappy runned away Marse Billy sicked dem hounds on his heels and dey was sho’ to ketch him and fetch him back. Dey had to keep knives from Pappy or when dem dogs cotch him he would jus’ cut ‘em up so dey would die. When dey got him back to de house, dey would buckle him down over a barrel and larrup him wid a plaited whup. ‘Omans warn’t whupped much. My grandpa York was so bad ’bout runnin’ ‘way Marse Billy made him wear long old horns. One Sunday Marse Billy went by our church to see if all his Niggers was dar what was sposen to be dar. And dere grandpa was a-sottin’ wid dem horns on his head. Marse Billy told him he could take de horns off his head whilst he was in de meetin’ house. At dat grandpa dropped dem horns, and lit a rag to de woods and it tuk de dogs days to find him.
“If one slave kilt another, Marse Billy made de overseer tie dat dead Nigger to de one what kilt him, and de killer had to drag de corpse ’round ’til he died too. De murderers never lived long a-draggin’ dem daid ones ’round. Dat jus’ pyorely skeered ‘em to death. Dere was a guard house on de farm, whar de wust Niggers was kept, and while dey was in dat guard house, dey warn’t fed but once a day. It warn’t nothin’ unusual for Marse Billy to sell slaves, but he never sold his best Niggers. De ones he sold was allus dem he couldn’t git no wuk out of.
“Not a Nigger could read or write on Marse Billy’s plantation. Dey was all too dumb to larn. Dere was a shackly sort of church house on our plantation and on Sundays atter de Niggers had cleaned deyselfs up, if dey told Marse Billy dey wanted to go to church, he sent ‘em on. All I knows ’bout baptizin’s is dey jus’ tuk ‘em to de river and plunged ‘em in. Dey sung somepin’ ’bout: ‘Gwine to de River for to be Baptized.’ Us had prayer meetin’s on Wednesday nights sometimes.
“Oh, Mussy! Don’t ax me ’bout fun’rals. I got de misery in my laigs and I feels too bad dis mornin’ to let myself even think ’bout fun’rals. Back den when slave folks died dey jus’ put ‘em in home-made pine coffins what dey throwed in a wagon and tuk ‘em to de graveyard. At dem buryin’s, dey used to sing:
‘Am I born to die
To let dis body down.’
“None of our Niggers ever runned away to de North. Dey was too busy runnin’ off to de woods. Jus’ to tell de truth dem Niggers on our place was so dumb dey didn’t even take in ’bout no North. Dey didn’t even know what de war was ’bout ’til it was all over. I don’t know whar to start ’bout dem patterollers. Dey was de devil turned a-loose. Dere was a song ’bout ‘Run Nigger run, de patteroller git you!’ and dey sho’ would too, I want to tell you.
“What de slaves done on Saddy night? Dey done anything dey was big ‘nough to do. Dere warn’t no frolickin’ ‘cept on Sadday night. Niggers on our place wukked all day Sadday ‘cept once a month. Some of de slaves would slip off and stay half a day and de overseer wouldn’t miss ‘em ’cause dere was so many in de field. It was jus’ too bad for any Nigger what got cotched at dat trick. Sadday night, slaves was ‘lowed to git together and frolic and cut de buck.
“Christmas Day Marse Billy called us to de big house and give us a little fresh meat and sweet bread, dat was cake. Christmas warn’t much diff’unt f’um other times. Jus’ more t’eat. Us jus’ had dat one day off, and New Year’s Day was used as a holiday too.
“Oh, dem cornshuckin’s! All day ‘fore a cornshuckin’ dey hauled corn and put it in great piles as high as dis here house. Us sung all de time us was shuckin’ corn. Dere was a lot of dem old shuckin’ songs. De one us sung most was: ‘Whooper John and Calline all night.’ Marse Billy, he give ‘em coffee and whiskey all night and dat made ‘em git rough and rowdy. Den de shucks did fly. Us had one more grand feast when de last ear of corn had done been shucked. Dere warn’t nothin’ lackin’.
“Cotton pickin’s warn’t planned for fun and frolic lak cornshuckin’s. If Marse Billy got behind in his crops, he jus’ sent us back to de fields at night when de moon was bright and sometimes us picked cotton all night long. Marster give de ‘oman what picked de most cotton a day off, and de man what picked de most had de same privilege.
“Old Aunt Martha what nussed de chillun while deir Mammies wukked in de field was de quiltin’ manager. It warn’t nothin’ for ‘omans to quilt three quilts in one night. Dem quilts had to be finished ‘fore dey stopped t’eat a bit of de quiltin’ feast. Marse Billy ‘vided dem quilts out ‘mongst de Niggers what needed ‘em most.
“Dem blue and white beads what de grown ‘omans wore was jus’ to look pretty. Dey never meant nothin’ else. Mammy would skeer us down ’bout Rawhead and Bloody Bones. Us was all time a-lookin’ for him, but he never got dar. What skeered us most was painters (panthers) a-howlin’ close to our cabins at night. You could hear ‘em most any night. When Mammy wanted to make us behave all she had to say was: ‘I hears dem painters comin’!’ Dat made us jus’ shake all over and git mighty still and quiet. De mens tried to run dem painters down, but dey never did ketch one.
“One of de cabins was allus ha’nted atter some of de slaves got kilt in it whilst dey was fightin’. Nobody never could live in dat cabin no more atter dat widout ha’nts gittin’ atter ‘em. De wust of ‘em was a ‘oman ha’nt what you could hear sweepin’ up leaves in de yard and all dat time you might be lookin’ hard and not see a leaf move. In dat cabin you could all time hear ha’nts movin’ cheers and knockin’ on de wall. Some of dem ha’nts would p’int a gun in your face if you met ‘em in de dark. Dem ha’nts was too much for me.
“Our white folks was good as dey knowed how to be when us got sick. I don’t ‘member dat dey ever had a doctor for de slaves, but dey give us all kinds of home-brewed teas. Pinetops, mullein and fat light’ood splinters was biled together and de tea was our cure for diff’unt ailments. Scurvy grass tea mixed wid honey was good for stomach troubles, but you sho’ couldn’t take much of it at a time. It was de movin’est medicine! Round our necks us wore asafetida sacks tied on strings soaked in turpentine. Dat was to keep diseases off of us.
“What does I ‘member ’bout de war? Well, it was fit to fetch our freedom. Marse Billy had a fine stallion. When de sojers was comin’, he sont Pappy to de woods wid dat stallion and some gold and told him not to let dem yankees find ‘em. Dat stallion kept squealin’ ’til de yankees found him, and dey tuk him and de gold too. Grandma was a churnin’ away out on de back porch and she had a ten dollar gold piece what she didn’t want dem sojers to steal, so she drapped it in de churn. Dem yankees poured dat buttermilk out right dar on de porch floor and got grandma’s money. Marse Billy hid hisself in a den wid some more money and other things and dey didn’t find him. Dey tuk what dey wanted of what dey found and give de rest to de slaves. Atter de sojers left, de Niggers give it all back to Marster ’cause he had allus been so good to ‘em.
“Us stayed on wid Marse Billy for sev’ral years atter de war. He paid us $10 a month and he ‘lowanced out de rations to us evvy week; most allus on Monday ’cause Sundays us had ‘nough company to eat it all at one time. He give us three pounds of fat meat, a peck of meal, a peck of flour, 25¢ worth of sugar, and a pound of coffee. Dat had to last a whole week.
“I didn’t take in nothin’ ’bout Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and dat dar Booker T. Washin’ton man, but I heared folks say dey was all right.
“What is you talkin’ ’bout Miss? I didn’t need to have no big weddin’ when I married Lige Elder. It was a big ‘nough thing to git a man lak what I got. What did I want to have a big weddin’ for when all I was atter was my man? Us had done been married 25 years ‘fore us had no chillun. Dis here Cornelia what I lives wid was our first chile. She ain’t got no chillun. Isaac, my boy, has got four chillun. My old man died ’bout two years ago.
“I j’ined de church ’cause I was happy and wanted de world to know I had done got ‘ligion. I think evvybody ought to git ‘ligion. God says if us do right he will give us all a home in His Heaven.
“I’d rather have de days as dey is now in some ways. But one thing I does lak to do is eat and us had a plenty of good eatin’ den and never had to worry none ’bout whar it was a-comin’ f’um. Miss, ain’t you through axin’ me questions yet? I’m tired of talkin’. I done let de fire go out under my washpot twice. Dem white folks ain’t gwine to lak it if dey has to wait for deir clothes, and dis misery in my laigs, it sho’ does hurt me bad dis mornin’.”