Interviewer: Miss Maude Barregan
Person Interviewed: Carrie Nancy Fryer
Location: Augusta, Georgia
An angular, red-skinned old Negro women was treading heavily down the dusty sidewalk, leaning on a gnarled stick and talking to a little black girl. A “sundown” hat shaded a bony face of typical Indian cast and her red skin was stretched so tight over high cheek bones that few wrinkles showed.
“Auntie,” she was asked, “have you time to tell me something about slavery times?” “No’m, I sorry,” she answered, “but I gwine to see a sick lady now, and I gots to ‘tend to somepin’.” “May I come back to see you at your house?” “Yas’m, any time you wants. I live in de lil’ house on de canal, it has a ellum tree in front. I riz it from sapling. I name dat lil’ tree ‘Nancy’ so when I gone, folks kin come by and bow and say ‘Howdy, Nancy.’”
She seated herself on a stone step and spread her many skirts of gray chambray, hand-sewed with big white stitches. An old woman came by, her shining black face puckered with anxiety, dressed in a starched white uniform and a battered black hat, well brushed.
“Morning, Nancy,” she said. “You look mighty peak-ked dis morning.”
“Hunh!” grunted Nancy, “I oughter. I bin to see de mayor. I say ‘Mr. Mayor, here I is. I ain’ got nuttin’ to eat—it ain’ right for a woman my age to beg food. Now what yer gwine do ’bout it?’ De mayor say: ‘Auntie, you go right down to de welfare office at de Court House and tell de lady I sont you to git somepin’ to eat.’ I done dat—dey promise to send a lady, but I ain’ see no lady yit.” A heavy sigh rolled out. “I didn’ lef’ skin of meat in my house or a piece of cornpone. But I didn’ take nuttin’ to heart ’cause de Lord is my helper.”
The old woman sighed too. “Yeah, Nancy, das de way dey does. I ain’ gwine keep nasty house for nobody. But white people’s funny. Dey think if you got clean house and bleachin’ sheets you mus’ have somepin’ to eat inside.” She clenched her fist, and her voice rose. “I tells you right now—I gwine keep my house neat jus’ like I bin taught, ef I never gits no somepin’ t’eat and ain’ got cornpone in de oven.”
“A poor creeter come to my house today to beg for somepin’ to eat,” said Nancy, “I ain’ got nuttin’ and I tell her so. She say she gwine to de court-house too.”
“T’won’t do no good,” answered the other woman. “Come over here, Nancy. I wants to talk to you.”
With a dignified excuse, Nancy creaked to her long length and moved deliberately to the edge of the sidewalk. Whisperings followed, the voices of the two old women rising in their excitement.
“I ain’ gwine into somepin’ I don’t know nuttin’ about.”
“Nobody gwine ‘swade me either.”
“My husband didn’ put no composin’ on me. If I don’t git but one meal a day, I ain’ gwine dirty. I didn’ have mouthful t’eat in my house.”
The interested eavesdropper decided that the welfare office had talked social security to the women instead of direct relief, and they were worried and suspicious about the matter. The old black woman was getting angrier and angrier.
“If any of ‘em lookin’ for me to have nasty old tore-up house, I ain’ gwine did it. You dunno when sickness come. When my boy got his leg broke up, soon as dey could, dey put him off on me. Miz’ Powell say: ‘Steve, if you don’t be good to your ma, de Lord gwine take your blessing from you.’ Dey paid Steve $137.00, Nancy, and he ain’t gimmie a nickle! He spent it on a woman in Edgefield. But my gal is diffunt. If she ain’ got but one mouthful she gwine give me half.”
Nancy nodded: “Dat like my gal too.”
The old woman took up her complaint again: “Um got daughter. When you walk in her house, you think dey is a white person’s house. When I was workin and able, I put down as many bleachin’ sheets as any white ‘oman.”
Nancy’s ponderous sigh rolled out. She was very “peaked” indeed on this hot September morning. “If sister got a hoecake of bread, she gwine give it to me. Ain’ nobody else to help now—de Lord done come along and got ev’y one of my mother’s chillun but me.”
Seeing that present necessities were too important to permit an interview, the visitor said: “Nancy, I’ll see you tomorrow.” A preoccupied goodbye followed the interviewer, and the excited conversation rose again.
Three days later Nancy was found on the cluttered back porch of her house by the canal. She was moving heavily about, picking up behind a white boy and her bright-faced grandchild. Her face was still worried, but her manner was warm and friendly.
“I knowed you’d be comin’,” she said, smiling, “but I looked for you yesterday.” She sat down and settled herself for conversation, her long hands, still nice looking in spite of rheumatism, moving nervously over her gray chambray lap. “Dis las’ gone August I was 72 years old,” she began, “my sister say I older dan dat, but I know I born las’ year of de war. I was born on governor Pickens’ place, de Grove place fur out, and my mother was Lizbeth Cohen. Must have was my father a Indian, he brighter dan me, but redder. I kin’ member Miss Dooshka Pickens, de one what went to Europe. Dey put all de lil’ chillun in a row for her to look at, and she sittin’ up on her lil’ pony lookin’ at us chillun. She was a pretty thing, yeah, I knowed her well. After de war my mother and father rented land, paid de rent. We liveded well. I would go to school three months when we first gether all de krep (crop). We had a colored teacher in de Baptist Church where dey taught school. De name was Spring Grove.
“My father died and mother, she moved over in Ca-lina on General Butler’s place. She work in de fields. I wouldn’ go to school but three months in de year. When I growed up I work for Colonel Doctor McKie in de house. He de fines’ doctor I ever knowed. I got married to General Butler’s place where my mother was. I done had six chillun before I come to Augusta. I nused to work for Dr. Sam Litchenstein, 17 years. He moved to Louisville and dat thow me out anything to do. He tried to git me to go down dere wid him but I fell in bad health. Den my daughter and dis yere grandchild, I couldn’ bear to leave dem. I cried when Dr. Sam lef’, he was good to me. I nused to carry dis grandchild to his house wid me all de time.”
As Nancy’s plantation recollections seemed vague, she was prompted to talk about remedies and cures and on these her mind worked with speed and decision.
“I had high blood pressure so bad I couldn’ walk right. My head nused to spin, laying down all night, couldn’ res. One night I doze off in my sleep and a lady’s spirit come to me. Her and my mother was two friends, her name was Cyndie Gardenigh. She say: ‘Honey, in de morning when you git up, you git you some jimpson weed and put it wid cookin’ salt and bind it on your head.’ I done det. I nused to have long hair to my shoulder. Jimpson weed done cut my hair off, but it cured my blood pressure. Mus’ did kill ‘em!”
Asked how she treated her rheumatism, Nancy replied:
“Git a pint glass wid a pint of kerosene in it, and a block of camphor. Cut up de camphor and mix it round in de kerosene. Pat it on when de pain come. When I got up dis morning, dis yere hand I couldn’ move, and now it feel a heap better. Lord, I done work so hard thoo’ life, and all done tuk from me!”
A moment’s silence brought shadows to Nancy’s face. A twinge in her knee reminded her of rheumatism cures. She rubbed the painful spot and resumed: “You know what I am wearin’ on my leg now? I made me two lil’ bags and put a Irish potato in it, and when it drawed up jus’ as hard as a log it done me good. But you got to steal two Irish potatoes, and put around both legs jus’ below de knee. I just’ be leanin’ back stiff all de time, couldn’ walk. A old white man told me about dat. He see me walkin’ along crooked and he say: ‘Auntie, what’s de matter?’ I told him. He say: ‘Now, I’ll tell you what cure me. I was off in a furn (foreign) country, and a man say; me walking cripple, and he told me to steal two Irish potatoes and wear ‘em, and when dey git hard you burn ‘em up.’ I specked I bin crooked up all kind of fashion if I ain’t done dat: I always bind a piece of brass around my leg. Das’ good like gold.”
The eager grandchild was hanging over Nancy’s shoulder, listening and smiling. The white boy edged up, and Nancy laughed. “Hunh! I spects dese chillun kin ‘member tomorrow every word I tells you today. Dey knows everything.” Her bony arm encircled the Negro child. “Jooroosalom oak—we got some and give it to dis lil’ thing for worms. She went off in a trance and never come out until 2 o’clock nex’ day. I think we got de wrong thing and give her root instead of seed. I never fool wid it no more it skeered me so. Thought we had killed de child.”
Nancy was asked what her methods were in raising children.
“Bin so long I mos’ forgot,” she said. “All my babies growed straight ’cause I swep’ ‘em 9 times for 9 mornings from de knees down on out, dataway, and bathed ‘em wid pot liquor and dish water. I ain’ nused no root cep’ sassafax roots to make tea outten das good to purge your blood in de spring of de year. Drinkin’ water from a horse trough, I hearn’ tell das good for whoopin’ cough and all lika-dat.”
“Dat daughter of mine, she had a wen on her neck big as a apple. An old lady come to me. ‘I come to git my child today,’ she say, ‘a lady died dis morning and I wants to take her dere.’ Well I didn’ want my child gwine to de death house but she take her. De corpse ain’ cold yit. She put her 9 times across, nine times straight, and dat child was cured. Yas’m, she got jus’ as pretty face now! Ain’ no use talkin’, she straighten my child, her and de Lord! De wen went and jus’ pass away. You got to do it before de corpse git cold, jus’ after de breaf’ pass out of de body.”
“I done mark three of my chillun. Yas’m, I ruin’t three of ‘em. I was een de country and I was gwine thoo’ de orchard, and de cherries was scarce. I looked up in de man’s cherry tree, and one tree was full of fruit. Dey jus’ as pretty! I say: ‘Jim, please sir, give me one of dem cherries.’ Jim say: ‘No!’ I stood dere wishin’ for dem cherries, scratchin’ my wrist, and my child born wid cherry on his wrist, right where I scratch! I took de baby and showed him to old man Jim, and he cry and pray over dat cherry and told me to forgive him and he never would do it no more. But he done it den.”
“I live in de country. I come to town where a white man was down here on McKinne Street makin’ dat soft white candy. I stood up and wished for it. It did look so pretty and I wanted some so bad and I didn’ have no money. I was cryin’, scratchin’ my forehead over my right eye near de hair. He didn’ give me none. When my gal born, she had white mark right on her forehead in de place I scratched.”
“My sister-in-law made me ruin’t my other child. Twas an old man coming along. He was ruptured. He had on a white ap’on, and she bus’ out laughin’ and say: ‘Look at dat!’ I jus’ young gal, ain’ be thinkin’ and I bus’ out laughin’ too, he did look funny. I ruin’t my boy. He was in de same fix and when I look at him I feel so bad, and think ‘dat didn’ have to be.’”
“Dis kin happen: anybody see another person wid pretty hair and rub dey hair down, dat child gwine have mustee hair too. A old black ‘oman had a baby. She seen somebody wid dat mustee hair (das what we calls black folks wid smooth straight hair) and when her child born, everybody say: ‘Look what dis baby got! Long black hair!”
Asked about persons born with cauls, Nancy grunted:
“Hunh! My mother said it cover my head, shoulders and all! I kin see ghosts. Was a man lived right dere in dat house yonder. His name was Will Beasley but we call ‘im Bee. De fus’ time he got sick he had a stroke, den he git up. De doctor told him to be careful but he would go out. One night about 8 o’clock I see him go. I stay sittin’ here on dis porch, and about 10 o’clock here come Bee out of his house, in his night clothes out de open door and cross de yard. He go behind dat house. I call out: ‘Bee, I thought you was gone off? He didn’ notice me no more dan I never spoke. I got worried about him bein’ sick and when he come out from behind de house I say: ‘Bee, you bes’ be gwine indorrs, dress lika-dat. You git sick again.’ He walk straight back in de house. Pretty soon here come Bee down de street, all dressed up in his brown pants and white shirt! I grab de bannister just’ a-tremblin’ and de hair rizzed up on my head. I knowed den he ain’ got long for here. He come on by and say: ‘Nancy, how you feelin’?’ I say: ‘Bee, how long you bin out?’ He say: ‘Why, I bin gone since 8 o’clock.’ I didn’t say nuttin’ but I knowed I seed his spirit and it was his death. He tooken sick two or three weeks later jus’ before Labor Day, and died all paralyzed up. A woman come to my house and say: ‘Nancy, give dis to Bee.’ I didn’ want to see him if he dyin’ but I went on over. I call: ‘Bee! Bee!’ He say: ‘Who dat, you, Miz’ Nancy?’ I say: ‘Here’s a bottle of medicine Miss Minnie sont you.’ He say: ‘I can’t move my right side.’ He was: laying wid his leg and arm in the air: stiff as a board. He say: ‘Miz Nancy?’ I say: ‘Hunh?’ He say: ‘Go down de canal bank and tell my Minnie please come and rub me ’cause she know how. I want my Minnie.’ Das de ‘oman he bin livin’ wid since his wife lef’ him. I wait till de King Mill boys come along and call ‘em. ‘Tell Miz’ Minnie dat Will Bee want her to come and rub him.’ But she never did come till 12 o’clock and he was dead before she come.
“I did had a niece what died. She was about 20 years old and a good boy. Twas a year in August. I went on so over him, his mother say: ‘Don’t you know his last words was, ‘I’m on my way to heaven and I ain’ gwine turn back?’ Don’t worry, Nancy.’ But I did worry. Dat night he come to me in spirit. He stand dere and look at me and smile, and he say: ‘Aunt, I am all right. Aunt, I am all right,’ over and over. Den it went off. I was jus’ as satisfy den, and I never worry no more.”
Nancy said she saw ghosts all through her childhood. She did not characterize them as “hants” but spoke of them throughout as ghosts.
“I seed ‘em when I was chillun,” she said, “me and my sister one night was comin’ from spring. Twas in de winter time and jus’ as cold, twas dark and I had de light. Sister say: ‘Babe, don’t let dat light go out.’ Jus’ den I seed it—a horse’s head all spread out in fore! A big ball of fire! I yelled: ‘Oh, sister, look at de horse wid a head of fire!’ She knock me out for dead! She grab dat light and run home and lef’ me in de wood. When I come to I run to my mother crying and she say: ‘Now Nancy, you know you kin see ‘em but you ought not to tell de other chillun and skeer ‘em. You mus’ keep it to yourself.’ Ever since den, I won’t tell nobody what I kin see. Yas’m, I wake up in de nighttime and see ‘em standin’ all ’bout dis house. I ain’ skeered—when you born wid de veil it jus’ be natchel to see ‘em. Why, I sees ‘em on de canal bank when de fog sprangles through de trees and de shape forms on de ground’.
“I hears de death alarm too. One kind of call comes from out de sky, a big howlin’ noise, loud like singin’—a regular tune. De other kind goes ‘hummmmmmm’ like somebody moanin’. I was settin’ down and de bull bat come in de house. Me and de chillun done all we could to git him out de house. A woman nex’ door was name Rachel. I say: ‘Rachel! Dere’s a bull bat in here and we can’t get him out.’ You know what she done? She turn her pocket inside out and dat bat went out de door jus’ like it come in! Dat a simple thing to do, ain’ it? But it done de work. Dat was on Thursday night. Saturday morning I got de news that my babiest sister was dead. One of my boys was wid her. I was settin’ down wid my head bowed, prayin’, and a white man dressed in a white robe come in de house and stood before me and say: ‘Oh, yeah! I gwine take your sister! Den what your child gwine do?’ I sot down and studied and I said: ‘Lord, I’ll do de bes’ I kin.’ And Miss you know I had to take dat child back!
“Before I los’ my husband ev’y time he go out to work I couldn’ hear nuttin’ but knockin’—ever he step out de house somebody come to de door and knock four slow knocks. If he go off in de night it wouldn’ stop till he git back. I wouldn’ tell him ’cause I knowed twould worry him. I say: ‘Sam, les’ us move.’ He say: ‘Honey, we ain’ long bin move here.’ But us ‘cided to move anyway. Twas a big show in town. I let all de chillun go to de show. Time I got my things fix up to move and went to cook my dinner come de knockin’ four times. I knowed he’d be took sick pretty soon. He didn’ ‘low me to work. Dat was a good husband! I had six chillun. He say: ‘Honey, no! I workin’ makin’ enough to support you. All I want you to do is keep dis house clean and me and my chillun, and I will pay you de five dollars every week de white lady would pay you.’ And he done dat, gimme five dollars every week for myself.
“A white lady was crazy about my work, jus’ her and her husband. I got up soon one morning, time he left, and runned up dere and washed her clothes and ironed dem. Den I started back home ’bout noon. I heared somethin’ walkin’ behind me. ‘Bip! Bip!’ I look round and didn’ see nuttin’. I kep’ a lookin’ back and den I heard a voice moanin’ and kind of singing: ‘Oh, yeah! I bin here and done took your mother. I bin here and done took your sister! Now I’m a-comin’ to take your husband!’ Talking to me like-dat in de broad open daytime! I say: ‘No, you won’t! No, you won’t!’ I commence a runnin’, cryin’ inside. When I got home I thow myself on de bed shiverin’ and shakin’. Twas no dinner done dat day. When he come home dat night he tooken sick and never got up again. He knock on de head of de bed jus’ like de knocks come at de door, when he want me to go to him! He never lived but two weeks and went on to de judgment!
“One night dey was givin’ my husband toddy. He drink some and wanted me to finish it. I told him no, I ain’ drinkin’ after no sick folks ’cause it mean death. His first cousin tooked it and drank it. He was a fine looking man in two months he was gone too!
“My husband come to me in spirit any time I git worried up. When I git in trouble he’ll come and stand over me wid his arms folded behind him. He told me one night: ‘You must pray, Nancy. You must pray! Um gwine help, and de Lord gwine help you too.’ Missy, how you reckon he gwine help me if he dead? I ask de Lord and beg him to take me too, beg him to please carry me home.”
Nancy was becoming more and more doleful, and to take her mind from the thought of her dead husband, she was asked about remedies.
“When us had de mumps mother git sardines and take de oil out and rub us jaws and dat cure us good. Sassafax for measles, to run de numor (humor) out de blood. When de fever gone, she would grease us wid grease from skin of meat. Git fat light’ood, make fire, cut de skin off bacon meat, broil it over flame and let grease drip into a pan, den rub us all over for de rash. Couldn’ wash us you see, ‘cep’ under de arms a little ’cause water musn’ tech us. For a sty in de eye we nused to say: ‘Sty! Lie!’ You see dat call ‘em a lie and dey go on off. ‘Um got a sty! Sty! Lie!’ When witches ride me I took a sifter. An old lady told me de nex’ time dey come, ‘you put de sifter in de bed.’ I done dat and dey ain’ bother me since. A basin of water under de bed is good too.”
Nancy had an experience with a gold digger. He came to board, and had an inconvenient habit of staying up all night. “I nused to have a old man stay here wid me. One night I couldn’ lay down it was so cold, so I sit up and wrop in a blanket. He say: ‘Nancy, see yonder! In de corner of your yard is a pot of gold.’ Now I knows if you go and git de money what de dead done bury, you don’t see no peace, so I told him he couldn’ dig in my yard. I made him move. A ‘oman say he went to stay wid her and when she got up one morning he had dug a hole in de yard big as a well, so she runned him off too. He had all de implee-ments but he wouldn’ let nobody see him digging in de night. Well Miss, I knowed dat gold was truly in my yard, because I got up one night and looked out dere, and a white ‘oman was standin’ right where de old man say twas gold pot. I look at de white lady, a high white lady, and she kep’ her eye down in dat corner guardin’ de gold what she bury! Den I seed her go on off thoo’ de gate and I knowed twas de spirit of de woman what bury it.”
Nancy did not remember any stories about witches, booger-men or animals, but she did give a version of the story of the mistress who was buried alive.
“Dat really did happen in Edgefield,” she said. “Marster los’ his daughter and den his butler went to de cemetery and dugged her up. He was gittin’ de jewelries off of her finger when she moan; ‘Oh, you hurtin’ my finger!’ He runned back to de house and she got up out of de coffin and went to de Big House. She knock on de door and her father went, and he fainted. Her mother went, and she fainted. Everyone went to de door fainted. But her father come to himself and he was so happy to have his daughter back, he said God let de man dig her up and git her out alive. He made dat nigger rich. Gin him a whole plantation and two big carriage horses and a great big carriage and I dunno how much gold and silver. Told him he didn’ want him to do anything but sit down and live off of what he gin him de res’ of his life.”
Nancy asked her visitor to write a postcard to her “dear doctor” in Louisville and tell him she was having a hard time. She insisted that the card be signed: “Your Carrie Fryer what used to work for you, with love.”
“Come back and see me some more,” she begged wistfully, “I bin callin’ you in my mind all week.”