Interviewer: Viola B. Muse
Person Interviewed: Irene Coates
Location: Jacksonville, Florida
Immediately after slavery in the United States, the southern white people found themselves without servants. Women who were accustomed to having a nurse, maid, cook and laundress found themselves without sufficient money to pay wages to all these. There was a great amount of work to be done and the great problem confronting married women who had not been taught to work and who thought it beneath their standing to soil their hands, found it very difficult.
There were on the other hand many Negro women who needed work and young girls who needed guidance and training. The home and guidance of the aristocratic white people offered the best opportunity for the dependent un-schooled freed women; and it was in this kind of home that the ex-slave child of this story was reared. Irene Coates of 2015 Windle Street, Jacksonville, Florida, was born in Georgia about 1859. She was close to six years of age when freedom was declared. She was one among the many Negro children who had the advantage of living under the direct supervision of kind whites and receiving the care which could only be excelled by an educated mother. Jimmie and Lou Bedell were the names of the man and wife who saw the need of having a Negro girl come into their home as one in the family and at the same time be assured of a good and efficient servant in years to come.
When Irene was old enough, she became the nurse of the Bedell baby and when the family left Savannah, Georgia to come to Jacksonville, they brought Irene with them.
Although Irene was just about six years old when the Civil War ended, she has vivid recollection of happenings during slavery. Some of the incidents which happened were told her by her slave associates after slavery ended and some of them she remembers herself. Two incidents which she considers caused respect for slaves by their masters and finally the Emancipation by Abraham Lincoln she tells in this order.
The first event tells of a young, strong healthy Negro woman who knew her work and did it well. “She would grab up two bags of guana (fertilizer) and tote ’em at one time,” said Irene, and was never found shirking her work. The overseer on the plantation, was very hard on the slaves and practiced striking them across the back with a whip when he wanted to spur them on to do more work.
Irene says, one day a crowd of women were hoeing in the field and the overseer rode along and struck one of the women across the back with the whip, and the one nearest her spoke and said that if he ever struck her like that, it would be the day he or she would die. The overseer heard the remark and the first opportunity he got, he rode by the woman and struck her with the whip and started to ride on. The woman was hoeing at the time, she whirled around, struck the overseer on his head with the hoe, knocking him from his horse, she then pounced upon him and chopped his head off. She went mad for a few seconds and proceeded to chop and mutilate his body; that done to her satisfaction, she then killed his horse. She then calmly went to tell the master of the murder, saying “I’ve done killed de overseer,” the master replied-“Do you mean to say you’ve killed the overseer?” she answered yes, and that she had killed the horse also. Without hesitating, the master pointing to one of his small cabins on the plantation said-“You see that house over there?” she answered yes-at the same time looking-“Well” said he, “take all your belongings and move into that house and you are free from this day and if the mistress wants you to do anything for her, do it if you want to.” Irene related with much warmth the effect that incident had upon the future treatment of the slaves.
The other incident occurred in Virginia. It was upon an occasion when Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was visiting in Richmond. A woman slave-owner had one of her slaves whipped in the presence of Mrs. Lincoln. It was easily noticed that the woman was an expectant mother. Mrs. Lincoln was horrified at the situation and expressed herself as being so, saying that she was going to tell the President as soon as she returned to the White House. Whether this incident had any bearing upon Mr. Lincoln’s actions or not, those slaves who were present and Irene says that they all believed it to be the beginning of the President’s activities to end slavery.
Besides these incidents, Irene remembers that women who were not strong and robust were given such work as sewing, weaving and minding babies. The cloth from which the Sunday clothes of the slaves was made was called ausenburg and the slave women were very proud of this. The older women were required to do most of the weaving of cloth and making shirts for the male slaves. When an old woman who had been sick, regained her strength, she was sent to the fields the same as the younger ones. The ones who could cook and tickle the palates of her mistress and master were highly prized and were seldom if ever offered for sale at the auction block.
The slaves were given fat meat and bread made of husk of corn and wheat. This caused them to steal food and when caught they were severely whipped. Irene recalls the practice of blowing a horn whenever a sudden rain came. The overseer had a certain Negro to blow three times and if shelter could be found, the slaves were expected to seek it until the rain ceased. The master had sheds built at intervals on the plantation. These accommodated a goodly number; if no shed was available the slaves stood under trees. If neither was handy and the slaves got wet, they could not go to the cabins to change clothes for fear of losing time from work. This was often the case; she says that slaves were more neglected than the cattle.
Another custom which impressed the child-mind of Irene was the tying of slaves by their thumbs to a tree limb and whipping them. Women and young girls were treated the same as were men. After the Bedells took Irene to live in their home they traveled a deal. After bringing her to Jacksonville, when Jacksonville was only a small port, they then went to Camden County, Georgia.
Irene married while in Georgia and came back to Jacksonville with her husband Charles, the year of the earthquake at Charleston, South Carolina, about 1888. Irene and Charles Coates have lived in Jacksonville since that time. She relates many tales of happenings during the time that this city grew from a town of about four acres to its present status. Irene is the mother of five children. She has nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Her health is fair, but her eyesight is poor. It is her delight to entertain visitors and is conversant upon matters pertaining to slavery and reconstruction days.