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Interviewer: Adella S. Dixon
Person Interviewed: Della Briscoe
Location: Macon, Georgia
Della Briscoe, now living in Macon, is a former slave of Mr. David Ross, who owned a large plantation in Putnam County. Della, when a very tiny child, was carried there with her father and mother, Sam and Mary Ross. Soon after their arrival the mother was sent to work at the “big house” in Eatonton. This arrangement left Della, her brother and sister to the care of their grandmother, who really posed as their mother. The children grew up under the impression that their mother was an older sister and did not know the truth until just after the close of the Civil War, when the mother became seriously ill and called the children to her bedside to tell them goodbye.
Mr. David Ross had a large family and was considered the richest planter in the county. Nearly every type of soil was found on his vast estate, composed of hilly sections as well as acres of lowlands. The highway entering Eatonton divided the plantation and, down this road every Friday, Della’s father drove the wagon to town with a supply of fresh butter, for Mrs. Ross’ thirty head of cows supplied enough milk to furnish the city dwellers with butter.
Refrigeration was practically unknown, so a well was used to keep the butter fresh. This cool well was eighty feet deep and passed through a layer of solid rock. A rope ladder was suspended from the mouth of the well to the place where the butter was lowered for preservation. For safety, and to shield it from the sun, reeds were planted all around the well. And as they grew very tall, a stranger would not suspect a well being there.
In addition to marketing, Della’s father trapped beavers which were plentiful in the swampy part of the plantation bordering the Oconee, selling their pelts to traders in the nearby towns of Augusta and Savannah, where Mr. Ross also marketed his cotton and large quantities of corn. Oxen, instead of mules, were used to make the trips to market and return, each trip consuming six or seven days.
The young children were assigned small tasks, such as piling brush in “new grounds”, carrying water to field hands, and driving the calves to pasture.
Punishment was administered, though not as often as on some plantations. The little girl, Della, was whipped only once—for breaking up a turkey’s nest she had found. Several were accused of this, and because the master could not find the guilty party, he whipped each of the children.
Crime was practically unknown and Mr. Ross’ slaves never heard of a jail until they were freed.
Men were sometimes placed in “bucks”, which meant they were laid across blocks with their hands and feet securely tied. An iron bar was run between the blocks to prevent any movement; then, after being stripped, they were whipped. Della said that she knew of but one case of this type of punishment being administered a Ross slave. Sickness was negligible—childbirth being practically the only form of a Negro woman’s “coming down”.
As a precaution against disease, a tonic was given each slave every spring. Three were also, every spring, taken from the field each day until every one had been given a dose of calomel and salts. Mr. Ross once bought two slaves who became ill with smallpox soon after their arrival. They were isolated in a small house located in the center of a field, while one other slave was sent there to nurse them. All three were burned to death when their hut was destroyed by fire.
In case of death, even on a neighboring place, all work was suspended until the dead was buried.
Sunday, the only day of rest, was often spent in attending religious services, and because these were irregularly held, brush arbor meetings were common. This arbor was constructed of a brush roof supported by posts and crude joists. The seats were usually made of small saplings nailed to short stumps.
Religion was greatly stressed and every child was christened shortly after its birth. An adult who desired to join the church went first to the master to obtain his permission. He was then sent to the home of a minister who lived a short distance away at a place called Flat Rock. Here, his confession was made and, at the next regular service, he was formally received into the church.
Courtships were brief.
The “old man”, who was past the age for work and only had to watch what went on at the quarters, was usually the first to notice a budding friendship, which he reported to the master. The couple was then questioned and, if they consented, were married without the benefit of clergy.
Food was distributed on Monday night, and for each adult slave the following staple products were allowed—
Weekly ration: On Sunday:
3-1/2 lbs. meat One qt. syrup
1 pk. of meal One gal. flour
1 gal. shorts One cup lard
Vegetables, milk, etc., could be obtained at the “big house”, but fresh meat and chickens were never given. The desire for these delicacies often overcame the slaves’ better natures, and some frequently went night foraging for small shoats and chickens.
The “old man” kept account of the increase or decrease in live stock and poultry and reported anything missing each day. When suspicion fell on a visitor of the previous night, this information was given to his master, who then searched the accused’s dinner pail and cabin. If meat was found in either the culprit was turned over to his accuser for punishment. After being whipped, he was forbidden for three months to visit the plantation where he had committed the theft.
One of Della’s grandmother’s favorite recipes was made of dried beef and wheat. The wheat was brought from the field and husked by hand. This, added to the rapidly boiling beef, was cooked until a mush resulted, which was then eaten from wooden bowls with spoons of the same material. White plates were never used by the slaves.
Cloth for clothing was woven on the place. Della’s grandmother did most of the spinning, and she taught her child to spin when she was so small that she had to stand on a raised plank to reach the wheel. After the cloth was spun it was dyed with dye made from “shoemake” (sumac) leaves, green walnuts, reeds, and copperas. One person cut and others sewed. The dresses for women were straight, like slips, and the garments of the small boys resembled night shirts. If desired, a bias fold of contrasting colour was placed at the waist line or at the bottom of dresses. The crudely made garments were starched with a solution of flour or meal and water which was strained and then boiled.
As a small child Della remembers hearing a peculiar knock on the door during the night, and a voice which replied to queries, “No one to hurt you, but keep that red flannel in your mouth. Have you plenty to eat? Don’t worry; you’ll be free.” No one would ever tell, if they knew, to whom this voice belonged.
Just before the beginning of the Civil War a comet appeared which was so bright that the elder people amused themselves by sitting on the rail fence and throwing pins upon the ground where the reflection was cast. The children scrambled madly to see who could find the most pins.
During the early part of the war Mr. Ross fought with the Confederates, leaving his young son, Robert, in charge of his affairs. The young master was very fond of horses and his favorite horse—”Bill”—was trained to do tricks. One of these was to lie down when tickled on his flanks. The Yankees visited the plantation and tried to take this horse. Robert, who loved him dearly, refused to dismount, and as they were about to shoot the horse beneath him, the slaves began to plead. They explained that the boy was kind to every one and devoted to animals, after which explanation, he was allowed to keep his horse.
The breastworks at Savannah required many laborers to complete their construction, and as the commanders desired to save the strength of their soldiers, slave labor was solicited. Two slaves from each nearby plantation were sent to work for a limited number of days. The round trip from the Ross plantation required seven days.
Nearly every man had a family and when they returned from these long trips they drove to the quarters and fell on their knees to receive the welcome caresses of their small children.
Recreational facilities were not provided and slave children had little knowledge of how to play. Their two main amusements were building frog houses and sliding down a steep bank on a long board. One day, as they played up and down the highway, building frog houses at irregular intervals, little Della looked up and saw a group of Yankee calvarymen approaching. She screamed and began running and so attracted the attention of Mr. Ross who was at home on a furlough.
He saw the men in time to find a hiding place. Meanwhile, the soldiers arrived and the leader, springing from his horse, snatched Della up and spanked her soundly for giving the alarm, as they had hoped to take her master by surprise. Della said this was the first “white slap” she ever received.
Some of the Yankees entered the house, tore up the interior, and threw the furniture out doors. Another group robbed the smokehouse and smashed so many barrels of syrup that it ran in a stream through the yard. They carried much of the meat off with them and gave the remainder to the slaves. Chickens were caught, dressed, and fried on the spot as each soldier carried his own frying pan, and a piece of flint rock and a sponge with which to make a fire. The men were skilled in dressing fowls and cleaned them in a few strokes.
When they had eaten as much as they desired, a search for the corral was made, but the mules were so well hidden that they were not able to find them. Della’s father’s hands were tied behind him and he was then forced to show them the hiding place. These fine beasts, used for plowing, were named by the slaves who worked them. Characteristic names were: “Jule”, “Pigeon”, “Little Deal”, “Vic”, (the carriage horse), “Streaked leg,” “Kicking Kid”, “Sore-back Janie”. Every one was carried off.
This raid took place on Christmas Eve and the slaves were frantic as they had been told that Yankees were mean people, especially was Sherman so pictured.
When Sherman had gone, Mr. Ross came from his hiding place in the “cool well” and spoke to his slaves. To the elder ones he said, “I saw you give away my meat and mules.”
“Master, we were afraid. We didn’t want to do it, but we were afraid not to.”
“Yes, I understand that you could not help yourselves.” He then turned to the children, saying, “Bless all of you, but to little Della, I owe my life. From now on she shall never be whipped, and she shall have a home of her own for life.”
She shook with laughter as she said, “Master thought I screamed to warn him and I was only frightened.”
True to his word, after freedom he gave her a three-acre plot of land upon which he built a house and added a mule, buggy, cow, hogs, etc. Della lived there until after her marriage, when she had to leave with her husband. She later lost her home. Having been married twice, she now bears the name of Briscoe, her last husband’s name.
When the family had again settled down to the ordinary routine, a new plague, body lice, said to have been left by the invaders, made life almost unbearable for both races.
Della now lives with her granddaughter, for she has been unable to work for twenty-eight years. Macon’s Department of Public Welfare assists in contributing to her livelihood, as the granddaughter can only pay the room rent.
She does not know her age but believes that she is above ninety. Her keen old eyes seemed to look back into those bygone days as she said, “I got along better den dan I eber hab since. We didn’t know nuthin ’bout jail houses, paying for our burial grounds, and de rent. We had plenty o’ food.”