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Interviewer: Grace McCune
Person Interviewed: Jasper Battle
Location: 112 Berry St., Athens, Georgia
The shade of the large water oaks in Jasper’s yard was a welcome sight when the interviewer completed the long walk to the old Negro’s place in the sweltering heat of a sunny July afternoon. The old house appeared to be in good condition and the yard was clean and tidy. Jasper’s wife, Lula, came around the side of the house in answer to the call for Jasper. A large checked apron almost covered her blue dress and a clean white headcloth concealed her hair. Despite her advanced age, she seemed to be quite spry.
“Jus’ come back here whar I’se a-doin’ de white folks’ washin’,” she said. “Jasper’s done been powerful sick and I can’t leave him by hisself none. I brung him out here in de shade so I could watch him and ‘tend to him whilst I wuks. Jasper stepped on a old plank what had two rusty nails in it, and both of ‘em went up in his foot a fur ways. I done driv dem nails plumb up to dey haids in de north side of a tree and put jimpson weed poultices on Jasper’s foot, but it’s still powerful bad off.”
By this time we had arrived within sight and earshot of the old rocking chair where Jasper sat with his foot propped high in another chair. His chair had long ago been deprived of its rockers. The injured member appeared to be swollen and was covered with several layers of the jimpson weed leaves. The old man’s thin form was clothed in a faded blue shirt and old gray cotton trousers. His clothes were clean and his white hair was in marked contrast to his shining but wrinkled black face. He smiled when Lula explained the nature of the proposed interview. “‘Scuse me, Missy,” he apologized, “for not gittin’ up, ’cause I jus’ can’t use dis old foot much, but you jus’ have a seat here in de shade and rest yourself.” Lula now excused herself, saying: “I jus’ got to hurry and git de white folks’ clothes washed and dried ‘fore it rains,” and she resumed her work in the shade of another huge tree where a fire was burning brightly under her washpot and a row of sud-filled tubs occupied a long bench.
“Lula, she has to wuk all de time,” Jasper explained, “and she don’t never have time to listen to me talk. I’se powerful glad somebody is willin’ to stop long enough to pay some heed whilst I talks ’bout somepin. Dem days ‘fore de war was good old days, ‘specially for de colored folks. I know, ’cause my Mammy done told me so. You see I was mighty little and young when de war was over, but I heared de old folks do lots of talkin’ ’bout dem times whilst I was a-growin’ up, and den too, I stayed right dar on dat same place ’til I was ’bout grown. It was Marse Henry Jones’ plantation ‘way off down in Taliaferro County, nigh Crawfordville, Georgy. Mammy b’longed to Marse Henry. She was Harriet Jones. Daddy was Simon Battle and his owner was Marse Billie Battle. De Battle’s plantation was off down dar nigh de Jones’ place. When my Mammy and Daddy got married Marse Henry wouldn’t sell Mammy, and Marse Billie wouldn’t sell Daddy, so dey didn’t git to see one another but twice a week—dat was on Wednesday and Sadday nights—’til atter de war was done over. I kin still ‘member Daddy comin’ over to Marse Henry’s plantation to see us.
“Marse Henry kept a lot of slaves to wuk his big old plantation whar he growed jus’ evvything us needed to eat and wear ‘cept sugar and coffee and de brass toes for our home-made, brogan shoes. Dere allus was a-plenty t’eat and wear on dat place.
“Slave quarters was log cabins built in long rows. Some had chimblies in de middle, twixt two rooms, but de most of ‘em was jus’ one-room cabins wid a stick and mud chimbly at de end. Dem chimblies was awful bad ’bout ketchin’ on fire. Didn’t nobody have no glass windows. Dey jus’ had plain plank shutters for blinds and de doors was made de same way, out of rough planks. All de beds was home-made and de best of ‘em was corded. Dey made holes in de sides and foots and haidpieces, and run heavy home-made cords in dem holes. Dey wove ‘em crossways in and out of dem holes from one side to another ’til dey had ‘em ready to lay de mattress mat on. I’se helped to pull dem cords tight many a time. Our mattress ticks was made of homespun cloth and was stuffed wid wheat straw. ‘Fore de mattress tick was put on de bed a stiff mat wove out of white oak splits was laid on top of de cords to pertect de mattress and make it lay smooth. Us was ‘lowed to pick up all de old dirty cotton ’round de place to make our pillows out of.
“Jus’ a few of de slave famblies was ‘lowed to do deir own cookin’ ’cause Marster kept cooks up at de big house what never had nothin’ else to do but cook for de white folks and slaves. De big old fireplace in dat kitchen at de big house was more dan eight feet wide and you could pile whole sticks of cord-wood on it. It had racks acrost to hang de pots on and big ovens and little ovens and big, thick, iron fryin’ pans wid long handles and hefty iron lids. Dey could cook for a hunderd people at one time in dat big old kitchen easy. At one time dere was tables acrost one end of de kitchen for de slaves t’eat at, and de slave chillun et dar too.
“Marster was mighty good to slave chillun. He never sont us out to wuk in de fields ’til us was ‘most growed-up, say 12 or 14 years old. A Nigger 12 or 14 years old dem days was big as a white child 17 or 18 years old. Why Miss, Niggers growed so fast, dat most of de Nigger nurses warn’t no older dan de white chillun dey tuk keer of. Marster said he warn’t gwine to send no babies to de fields. When slave chillun got to be ’bout 9 or 10 years old dey started ‘em to fetchin’ in wood and water, cleanin’ de yards, and drivin’ up de cows at night. De bigges’ boys was ‘lowed to measure out and fix de stock feed, but de most of us chillun jus’ played in de cricks and woods all de time. Sometimes us played Injuns and made so much fuss dat old Aunt Nancy would come out to de woods to see what was wrong, and den when she found us was jus’ a-havin’ fun, she stropped us good for skeerin’ her.
“Mammy’s job was to make all de cloth. Dat was what she done all de time; jus’ wove cloth. Some of de others cyarded de bats and spun thread, but Mammy, she jus’ wove on so reg’lar dat she made enough cloth for clothes for all dem slaves on de plantation and, it’s a fact, us did have plenty of clothes. All de nigger babies wore dresses made jus’ alak for boys and gals. I was sho’ly mighty glad when dey ‘lowed me to git rid of dem dresses and wear shirts. I was ’bout 5 years old den, but dat boys’ shirt made me feel powerful mannish. Slave gals wore homespun cotton dresses, and dey had plenty of dem dresses, so as dey could keep nice and clean all de time. Dey knitted all de socks and stockin’s for winter. Dem gals wore shawls, and dere poke bonnets had ruffles ’round ‘em. All de shoes was home-made too. Marster kept one man on de plantation what didn’t do nothin’ but make shoes. Lordy, Missy! What would gals say now if dey had to wear dem kind of clothes? Dey would raise de roof plumb offen de house. But jus’ let me tell you, a purty young gal dressed in dem sort of clothes would look mighty sweet to me right now.
“Us never could eat all de meat in Marster’s big old smokehouse. Sometimes he tuk hams to de store and traded ‘em for sugar and coffee. Plenty of ‘bacco was raised on dat plantation for all de white folks and de growed-up Niggers. Slave chillun warn’t sposen to have none, so us had to swipe what ‘bacco us got. If our Mammies found out ’bout us gittin’ ‘bacco, dey stropped us ’til de skin was most off our backs, but sometimes us got away wid a little. If us seed any of de old folks was watchin’ us, us slipped de ‘bacco from one to another of us whilst dey s’arched us, and it went mighty bad on us if dey found it.
“Slaves went to de white folks’ church and listened to de white preachers. Dere warn’t no colored preacher ‘lowed to preach in dem churches den. Dey preached to de white folks fust and den dey let de colored folks come inside and hear some preachin’ atter dey was through wid de white folks. But on de big ‘vival meetin’ days dey ‘lowed de Niggers to come in and set in de gallery and listen at de same time dey preached to de white folks. When de sermon was over dey had a big dinner spread out on de grounds and dey had jus’ evvything good t’eat lak chickens, barbecued hogs and lambs, pies, and lots of watermelons. Us kept de watermelons in de crick ’til dey was ready to cut ‘em. A white gentleman, what dey called Mr. Kilpatrick, done most of de preachin’. He was from de White Plains neighborhood. He sho’ did try mighty hard to git evvybody to ‘bey de Good Lord and keep his commandments.
“Mr. Kilpatrick preached all de funerals too. It ‘pears lak a heap more folks is a-dyin’ out dese days dan died den, and folks was a heap better den to folks in trouble. Dey would go miles and miles den when dey didn’t have no auto’biles, to help folks what was in trouble. Now, dey won’t go next door when dere’s death in de house. Den, when anybody died de fust thing dey done was to shroud ‘em and lay ‘em out on de coolin’ board ’til Old Marster’s cyarpenter could git de coffin made up. Dere warn’t no embalmers dem days and us had to bury folks de next day atter dey died. De coffins was jus’ de same for white folks and deir slaves. On evvy plantation dere was a piece of ground fenced in for a graveyard whar dey buried white folks and slaves too. My old Daddy is buried down yonder on Marse Henry’s plantation right now.
“When a slave wanted to git married up wid a gal, he didn’t ax de gal, but he went and told Marster ’bout it. Marster would talk to de gal and if she was willin’, den Marster would tell all de other Niggers us was a-goin’ to have a weddin’. Dey would all come up to de big house and Marster would tell de couple to jine hands and jump backwards over a broomstick, and den he pernounced ‘em man and wife. Dey didn’t have to have no licenses or nothin’ lak dey does now. If a man married up wid somebody on another place, he had to git a pass from his Marster, so as he could go see his wife evvy Wednesday and Sadday nights. When de patterollers cotched slaves out widout no passes, dey evermore did beat ‘em up. Leastways dat’s what Mammy told me.
“Durin’ de big war all de white folkses was off a-fightin’ ‘cept dem what was too old to fight or what was too bad crippled and ‘flicted. Dey stayed home and looked atter de ‘omans and chillun. Somebody sont Mist’ess word dat dem yankees was on de way to our plantation and she hid evvything she could, den had de hogs and hosses driv off to de swamps and hid. Mammy was crazy ’bout a pet pig what Marster had done give her, so Mist’ess told her to go on down to dat swamp quick, and hide dat little pig. Jus’ as she was a-runnin’ back in de yard, dem yankees rid in and she seed ‘em a-laughin’ fit to kill. She looked ’round to see what dey was tickled ’bout and dere followin’ her lak a baby was dat pig. Dem yankees was perlite lak, and dey never bothered nothin’ on our place, but dey jus’ plumb ruint evvything on some of de plantations right close to our’n. Dey tuk nigh evvything some of our neighbors had t’eat, most all deir good hosses, and anything else dey wanted. Us never did know why dey never bothered our white folkses’ things.
“When dey give us our freedom us went right on over to Marse Billie Battle’s place and stayed dar wid Daddy ’bout a year; den Daddy come wid us back to Marse Henry’s, and dar us stayed ’til Old Marster died. Long as he lived atter de war, he wukked most of his help on sheers, and seed dat us was tuk keer of jus’ lak he had done when us all b’longed to him. Us never went to school much ’cause Mammy said white folks didn’t lak for Niggers to have no larnin’, but atter de war was done over our Old Mist’ess let colored chillun have some lessons in a little cabin what was built in de back yard for de white chillun to go to school in.
“Atter dey buried our Old Marster, us moved down to Hancock County and farmed dar, ’cause dat was all us knowed how to do. Us got together and raised money to buy ground enough for a churchyard and a graveyard for colored folks. Dat graveyard filled up so fast dat dey had to buy more land several times. Us holped ‘em build de fust colored church in Hancock County.
“School for colored chillun was held den in our church house. Our teacher was a white man, Mr. Tom Andrews, and he was a mighty good teacher, but Lordy, how strick he was! Dese here chillun don’t know nothin’ ’bout school. Us went early in de mornin’, tuk our dinner in a bucket, and never left ’til four o’clock, and sometimes dat was ‘most nigh sundown. All day us studied dat blue back speller, and dat white teacher of ours sho’ tuk de skin offen our backs if us didn’t mind him. Dere warn’t no fussin’ and fightin’ and foolin’ ’round on de way home, ’cause dat white teacher ‘lowed he had control of us ’til us got to our Mammies’ doors and if us didn’t git for home in a hurry, it was jus’ too bad for us when he tuk it out on us next day wid dat long hick’ry switch.
“Things is sho’ diffunt now. Folks ain’t good now as dey was den, but dere is gwine to be a change. I may not be here to see it, but it’s a-comin’ ’cause de Good Lord is done ‘sied (prophesied) it, and it’s got to be. God’s sayin’ is comin’ to pass jus’ as sho’ as us is livin’ and settin’ in de shade of dis here tree.
“Lordy, Miss! How come you axes ’bout colored folks’es weddin’s? I was a-courtin’ a little 14-year old gal named Lovie Williams, but her Mammy runned me off and said she warn’t gwine to let Lovie git married up wid nobody ’til she got big enough. I jus’ bought dem licenses and watched for my chanct and den I stole dat gal right from under her Mammy’s eyes. My Mammy knowed all ’bout it and holped us git away. Us didn’t have no time for no weddin’. De best us could do was jus’ to git ourselfs married up. Lovie’s Mammy raised de Old Ned, but us didn’t keer den, ’cause it was too late for her to do nothin’ to part us. Lovie was one of the bestest gals what ever lived. Us raised 12 chillun and I never had one speck of trouble wid her. Lovie’s done been daid 15 years now.”
His voice trembled as he talked about his first wife, and Lula almost stopped her work to listen. This kind of talk did not please her and her expression grew stern. “You done talked a-plenty,” she told him. “You ain’t strong ‘nough to do no more talkin’,” but Jasper was not willing to be silenced. “I reckon I knows when I’se tired. I ain’t gwine to hush ’til I gits good and ready,” was his protest. “Yes Missy,” he continued. “All our chillun is done daid now ‘cept four and dey is ‘way off up North. Ain’t nobody left here ‘cept me and Lula. Lula is pow’ful good to me. I done got too old to wuk, and can’t do nothin’ nohow wid dis old foot so bad off. I’se ready and even anxious to go when de Good Lord calls for old Jasper to come to de Heav’nly Home.
“I ain’t heared nothin’ from my only brother in over 7 years. I ‘spose he still lives in Crawfordville. Missy, I wishes I could go back down to Crawfordville one more time. I kin jus’ see our old homeplace on de plantation down dar now. Lula a-washin’ here, makes me study ’bout de old washplace on Marse Henry’s plantation. Dere was a long bench full of old wood tubs, and a great big iron pot for bilin’ de clothes, and de batten block and stick. Chillun beat de clothes wid de batten stick and kept up de fire ’round de pot whilst de ‘omans leaned over de tubs washin’ and a-singin’ dem old songs. You could hear ‘em ‘most a mile away. Now and den one of de ‘omans would stop singin’ long enough to yell at de chillun to ‘git more wood on dat fire ‘fore I lash de skin offen your back.’
“Oh Missy, dem was good old days. Us would be lucky to have ‘em back again, ‘specially when harvest time comes ’round. You could hear Niggers a-singin’ in de fields ’cause dey didn’t have no worries lak dey got now. When us got de corn up from de fields, Niggers come from far and nigh to Marster’s cornshuckin’. Dat cornshuckin’ wuk was easy wid evvybody singin’ and havin’ a good time together whilst dey made dem shucks fly. De cornshuckin’ captain led all de singin’ and he set right up on top of de highes’ pile of corn. De chillun was kept busy a-passin’ de liquor jug ’round. Atter it started gittin’ dark, Marster had big bonfires built up and plenty of torches set ’round so as dere would be plenty of light. Atter dey et all dey wanted of dem good things what had done been cooked up for de big supper, den de wrastlin’ matches started, and Marster allus give prizes to de best wrastlers. Dere warn’t no fussin’ and fightin’ ‘lowed on our place, and dem wrastlin’ matches was all in good humor and was kept orderly. Marster wanted evvybody to be friends on our plantation and to stay dat way, for says he: ‘De Blessed Saviour done said for us to love our neighbor as ourselfs, and to give and what us gives is gwine to come back to us.’ Missy, de Good Lord’s word is always right.”
The interviewer was preparing to leave when one of Jasper’s old friends approached the sheltering tree in the yard, where the interview was drawing to a close. “Brudder Paul,” said Jasper, “I wisht you had come sooner ’cause Missy, here, and me is done had de bestes’ time a-goin’ back over dem old times when folks loved one another better dan dey does now. Good-bye Missy, you done been mighty kind and patient wid old Jasper. Come back again some time.”