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Interviewer: Sarah H. Hall
Person Interviewed: Martha Colquitt
Location: Athens, Georgia
The aged Negress leaned heavily on her cane as she shuffled about her tiny porch in the waning sunlight of a cold January day. An airplane writing an advertising slogan in letters of smoke high in the sky was receiving but indifferent attention from Aunt Martha. Sha shivered and occasionally leaned against a post until a paroxysm of coughing subsided. “What would you have thought of that if it had suddenly appeared in the sky when you were a child?” she was asked. “It would have scared me plum to death,” was the response. “I didn’t come out here just to see dat,” she continued, “I didn’t have nothin’ to make no fire wid, and I had to git out in de sunshine ’cause it wuz too cold to stay in de house. It sho’ is mighty bad to have to go to bed wid cold feet and cough all night long.”
Her visitor could not resist the impulse to say, “Let’s make a trade, Aunt Martha! If I give you a little money will you buy wood; then while you enjoy the fire will you think back over your life and tell me about your experiences when I come back tomorrow?” “Bless de Lord! I sho’ will be glad to tell you de truf ’bout anything I can ‘member,” was her quick reply as she reached for the money.
[TR: Return Visit]
The next day Aunt Martha was in bed, slowly eating a bowl of potlicker and turnip greens into which cornbread had been crumbled.
“My ches’ hurt so bad I couldn’t git up today,” was her greeting, “but set right dar by my bed and I can talk all right, long as I don’t have to walk ’bout none. Walkin’ makes me cough.”
Soon the bowl was empty and when she had wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her nightgown, Aunt Martha began:
“When I wuz born, my ma b’longed to Marse Billie Glenn and us lived on his big plantation way down below Lexin’ton. My pa wuz Anderson Mitchell. He come from Milledgeville and b’longed to Mr. D. Smith. The Smithies lived close by Marse Billie’s place. My ma wuz Healon Mitchell. I don’t know what her last name wuz ‘fore she married. She wuz born in Virginny, and her and my grandma wuz sold and brought to Georgia when ma wuz a baby. Grandma never did see none of her other chillun or her husband no more, and us never did hear nothin’ ’bout ’em.
“Ma had four chillun. Lucy wuz my onlies’ sister. Mr. Davenport bought her and she growed up at his place, what wuz called ‘De Glade.’ It wuz a big fine place at Point Peter, Georgia. Lucy married a Taylor.
“My brother, Isaac, wuz raised at Mr. Hamilton’s place at Point Peter. After he growed up, he worked in Atlanta and bought him a home dar. He got in a fight wid a man what had done stobbed his mule, and de man hurt Isaac so bad he went crazy and died in de ‘sylum at Milledgeville, but dey took him back and buried him in Atlanta.
“My other brother wuz Anderson Mitchell, and after freedom come he got work in Athens at de compress. His boss man moved to Augusta and took Anderson wid him to work in de compress dar. One day somethin’ blowed up and he wuz scalded so bad it paralyzed him. Dey brought him back here, but he soon died.
“Ma’s house was right on de edge of Marse Billie’s yard, ’cause she was de cook. Grandma lived in de same house wid ma and us chillun, and she worked in de loom house and wove cloth all de time. She wove de checkidy cloth for de slaves clo’es, and she made flannel cloth too, leaseways, it wuz part flannel. She made heaps of kinds of cloth.
“Our beds had big home-made posties and frames, and us used ropes for springs. Grandma brought her feather bed wid her from Virginny, and she used to piece up a heap of quilts outen our ole clo’es and any kind of scraps she could get a holt of. I don’t know what de others had in dey cabins ’cause ma didn’t ‘low her chillun to visit ’round de other folkses none.
“Ma’s chillun all had vittals from de white folkses kitchen. After Marse Billie’s fambly done et and left de table, de cook wuz s’posed to take what wuz left to feed de house niggers and her own chillun, and us did have sho’ ’nuff good vittals. All de other slave folks had day rations weighed out to ’em every week and dey cooked in dey own cabins. When de wheat wuz ground at de mill it made white flour, and shorts, and seconds. Most of de shorts wuz weighed out in rations for de slave folks. Now and den at Christmas and special times dey got a little white flour. Dey liked cornbread for reg’lar eatin’. Dey wuz always lots of hogs on Marse Billie’s plantation, and his colored folkses had plenty of side meat. Slaves never had no time to hunt in de day time, but dey sho’ could catch lots of ‘possums at night, and dey knowed how to git catfish at night too.
“‘Cross de road from de Big ‘Ouse, Marse Billie had a big gyarden, and he seed dat his help had plenty of somethin’ good to bile. Dey won’t no separate gyardens. Dey didn’t have no time to work no gyardens of dey own.
“In summertime us chillun wore just one piece of clo’es. It wuz a sack apron. In winter grandma made us yarn underskirts and yarn drawers buttoned down over our knees. Ma made our home-knit stockings. Dey called our brass toed shoes ‘brogans.’ I don’t speck you ever seed a brass toed shoe!
“Our Big ‘Ouse sho’ wuz one grand fine place. Why, it must have been as big as de Mill Stone Baptist Church! It wuz all painted white wid green blinds and had a big old high porch dat went nigh all ’round de house.
“If I ever did hear what Marse Billie’s wife wuz named, I done plum clear forgot. Us called her ‘Mist’ess’ long as she lived and I don’t recollect hearin’ her called nothin’ else. Marster and Mist’ess never had no little chillun whilst I was dar. Miss Lizzie wuz dey youngest child and she wuz most grown when I wuz born.
“Marse Billie’s overseer lived in a four-room house up de road a piece from the Big ‘Ouse. Nobody thought ’bout none of Marse Billie’s overseers as pore white folkses. Every overseer he ever had wuz decent and ‘spectable. Course dey won’t in de same class wid Marse Billie’s fambly, but dey was all right. Dey wuz four or five homes nigh our plantation, but all of ’em b’longed to rich white folkses. If dey wuz any pore white folkses ’round dar, us chillun never heared nothin’ of ’em.
“I don’t know just how many slaves Marse Billie had, but dey sho’ was a drove of ’em. Sometimes he had ’em all git together in de back yard at de Big ‘Ouse, and dey just filled up de yard.
“De overseer blowed a horn to wake ’em up just ‘fore day, so as everybody could cook, eat, and git out to de fields by sunrise. Dey quit nigh sundown, in time for ’em to feed de stock, do de milkin’, tend to bringin’ in de wood, and all sorts of other little jobs dat had to be done ‘fore it got too dark to see. Dey never wuz no work done at night on our plantation.
“If any of Marse Billie’s help wuz whipped, I never knowed nothin’ ’bout it. Dey used to say dat if any of ’em didn’t work right de overseer would take ’em to de workshop. Us chillun never did know what happened when dey took ’em to de workshop. It wuz too fur away for us to hear what happened dar. De workshop was a big lone shed off to itself, whar dey had da blacksmith place, and whar harness wuz mended, and all sorts of fixin’ done to de tools and things.
“Us never heared of no jail. Marse Billie bossed his place and us never knowed ’bout no trouble. De workshop wuz de nighest thing to a jail or a court dat anybody on our plantation knowed anything ’bout. Us never seed nobody in chains ’til long atter de War, when us wuz livin’ in Lexin’ton, and Mr. Jim Smith come through dar wid some colored folkses all chained up, but us never did know how come dey wuz chained.
“No slave never runned away fron Marse Billie’s plantation. Dey never even wanted to try. Dey wuz always ‘fraid dey might not be able to take as good keer of deyselves as Marse Billie did for ’em, and dey didn’t know what would happen to ’em off de plantation.
“I heared ’em talkin’ ’bout paterollers, but I never did see one. Folkses said dey would git you and beat you if dey cotch you off de plantation whar you b’longed ‘thout no pass. If any of Marse Billie’s slaves got cotched by de paterollers, I never knowed nothin’ ’bout it.
“I never heared of no trouble twixt de white folkses and dey colored folkses. Grandma and ma never ‘lowed us to go to no other cabins, and us didn’t hear ’bout no talk what wuz goin’ on ‘mongst de others. At night ma always spinned and knit, and grandma, she sewed, makin’ clo’es for us chillun. Dey done it ’cause dey wanted to. Dey wuz workin’ for deyselves den. Dey won’t made to work at night. On Sadday night, ma bathed all her chillun. I don’t know what de other famblies done den. Slaves wuz ‘lowed to frolic Sadday night, if dey b’haved deyselves. On Sunday nights dey most always had prayer meetings.
“On Christmas mornin’ all of us would come up to de yard back of de Big ‘Ouse and Marse Billie and de overseer handed out presents for all. Dey wuz a little dram and cake too. Us chillun got dolls, and dresses, and aprons. Them stuffed rag dolls wuz de prettiest things! On New Year’s day all de mens would come up to de Big ‘Ouse early in de morning and would work lively as dey could a-cuttin’ wood and doing all sorts of little jobs ’til de dinner bell rung. Den Marse Billie would come out and tell ’em dey wuz startin’ de New Year right a-workin’ lively and fast. Den he would say dat dey would be fed good and looked atter good, long as dey worked good. He give ’em a good taste of dram and cake all ’round, and let ’em go back to dey cabins for dinner, and dey could have de rest of de day to frolic.
“Dem cornshuckin’s us used to have sho’ wuz a sight. Corn would be piled up high as dis house, and de folkses would dance ’round and holler and whoop. Ma ‘lowed us chillun to watch ’em ’bout a half hour; den made us come back inside our cabin, ’cause dey always give de corn shuckin’ folkses some dram, and things would git mighty lively and rough by de time all de corn wuz shucked.
“On bright moonshiny nights folkses would invite de neighbors to come for cotton pickin’s. After the cotton wuz picked dey would eat barbecue, and dance and have a big time.
“I never seed but one weddin’ ‘fore freedom come, and dat wuz when Marse Billie’s daughter, Miss Lizzie Glenn, married Mr. Deadwyler. Dey had everything at dat weddin’. Yes, Ma’am, just everything. Miss Lizzie had on a white silk dress a-trailin’ so far behind her dat it took two ladies to tote her train. Her veil wuz floatin’ all ’bout her, and she wuz just de prettiest thing I ever did see in my whole life. A long time atter dat, Mr. Deadwyler, he died, and left Miss Lizzie wid two chillun, and she married Mr. Roan.
“I never seed no slave marriage. Ma went to ’em sometimes, but she never ‘lowed us to go, ’cause she said us wuz too little. Marse Billie sont atter his own preacher, and de couple would come up to de Big ‘Ouse and stand in de parlor door to be married ‘fore Marster and Mist’ess. Den de colored folkses would go back down to da cabins and have a weddin’ supper and frolic and dance. Dat’s what ma told me ’bout ’em.
“Us used to play lots, but us never did have no special name for our playin’. ‘Swingin’ the Corner,’ wuz when us all jined hands in a low row, and de leader would begin to run ’round in circles, and at de other end of de line dey would soon be runnin’ so fast dey wuz most flyin’.
“Us all de time heared folkses talkin’ ’bout voodoo, but my grandma wuz powerful ‘ligious, and her and ma told us chillun voodoo wuz a no ‘count doin’ of de devil, and Christians wuz never to pay it no ‘tention. Us wuz to be happy in de Lord, and let voodoo and de devil alone. None of us liked to hear scritch owls holler, ’cause everybody thought it meant somebody in dat house wuz goin’ to die if a scritch owl lit on your chimney and hollered, so us would stir up de fire to make the smoke drive him away. I always runned out and tried to see ’em, but old as I is, nigh 86, I ain’t never seed no scritch owl.
“Yes, Ma’am, I sho’ does b’lieve in ha’nts, ’cause I done heared one and I seed it too, leasewise I seed its light. It wuz ’bout 30 years ago, and us had just moved in a house whar a white fambly had moved out. The ma had died a few days atter a little baby wuz born, and de baby had died too. One night I heared a strange sound like somebody movin’ ’round in de house, and pretty soon a dim light comes a-movin’ into my room real slow and atter goin’ ’round de room it went out of sight in de closet.
“Next day I went to see de white folkses what had lived dar ‘fore us moved in, and de husband tole me not to worry, dat it wuz his wife’s ha’nt. He said she wuz huntin’ for some money she had hid in de house, ’cause she wanted her chillun what wuz still livin’ to have it. I went back home and ‘most tore dat house down lookin’ for dat money. Long as us lived dar I would see dat light now and den at night, and I always hoped it would lead me to de money but it never did.
“When folkses got sick, Marse Billie had ’em looked atter. Mist’ess would come every day to see ’bout ’em, and if she thought dey wuz bad off, she sont atter Dr. Davenport. Dr. Davenport come dar so much ’til he courted and married Marse Billie’s daughter, Miss Martha Glenn. I wuz named for Miss Martha. Dey sho’ did take special good keer of de mammies and de babies. Dey had a separate house for ’em, and a granny ‘oman who didn’t have nothin’ else to do but look atter colored babies and mammies. De granny ‘oman took de place of a doctor when de babies wuz born, but if she found a mammy in a bad fix she would ax Mist’ess to send for Dr. Davenport.
“Us didn’t have no separate church for colored folkses. De white folkses had a big Baptist church dey called Mill Stone Church down at Goosepond, a good ways down de road from Marse Billie’s plantation. It sho’ wuz a pretty sight to see, dat church, all painted white and set in a big oak grove. Colored folkses had dey place in de gallery. Dey won’t ‘lowed to jine de church on Sunday, but dey had reg’lar Sadday afternoons for de slaves to come and ‘fess dey faith, and jine de church. Us didn’t know dey wuz no other church but de Baptist. All de baptizin’ wuz done on Sunday by de white preacher. First he would baptize de white folkses in de pool back of de church and den he would baptize de slaves in de same pool.
“My grandma wuz a powerful Christian ‘oman, and she did love to sing and shout. Dat’s how come Marse Billie had her locked up in de loom room when de Yankee mens come to our plantation. Grandma would git to shoutin’ so loud she would make so much fuss nobody in de church could hear de preacher and she would wander off from de gallery and go downstairs and try to go down de white folkses aisles to git to de altar whar de preacher wuz, and dey wuz always lockin’ her up for ‘sturbin’ worship, but dey never could break her from dat shoutin’ and wanderin’ ’round de meetin’ house, atter she got old.
“Dem Yankee sojers rode up in de Big ‘Ouse yard and ‘gun to ax me questions ’bout whar Marse Billy wuz, and whar everything on de place wuz kept, but I wuz too skeered to say nuthin’. Everything wuz quiet and still as could be, ‘cept for Grandma a-singin’ and a-shoutin’ up in de loom house all by herself. One of dem Yankees tried the door and he axed me how come it wuz locked. I told him it wuz ’cause grandma had ‘sturbed de Baptist meetin’ wid her shoutin’. Dem mens grabbed de axe from de woodpile and busted de door down. Dey went in and got grandma. Dey axed her ’bout how come she wuz locked up, and she told ’em de same thing I had told ’em. Dey axed her if she wuz hongry, and she said she wuz. Den dey took dat axe and busted down de smokehouse door and told her she wuz free now and to help herself to anything she wanted, ’cause everything on de plantation wuz to b’long to de slaves dat had worked dar. Dey took grandma to de kitchen and told ma to give her some of de white folkses dinner. Ma said ‘But de white folkses ain’t et yet.’ ‘Go right on,’ de Yankees said, ‘and give it to her, de best in de pot, and if dey’s anything left when she gets through, maybe us will let de white folkses have some of it.’
“Dem brash mens strutted on through de kitchen into de house and dey didn’t see nobody else down stairs. Upstairs dey didn’t even have de manners to knock at Mist’ess’ door. Dey just walked right on in whar my sister, Lucy, wuz combin’ Mist’ess’ long pretty hair. They told Lucy she wuz free now and not to do no more work for Mist’ess. Den all of ’em grabbed dey big old rough hands into Mist’ess’ hair, and dey made her walk down stairs and out in de yard, and all de time dey wuz a-pullin’ and jerkin’ at her long hair, tryin’ to make her point out to ’em whar Marse Billie had done had his horses and cattle hid out. Us chilluns wuz a-cryin’ and takin’ on ’cause us loved Mist’ess and us didn’t want nobody to bother her. Dey made out like dey wuz goin’ to kill her if she didn’t tell ’em what dey wanted to know, but atter a while dey let her alone.
“Atter dey had told all de slaves dey could find on de place not to do no more work, and to go help deyselves to anything dey wanted in de smokehouse, and ’bout de Big ‘Ouse and plantation, dey rode on off, and us never seed no more of ’em. Atter de Yankees wuz done gone off Grandma ‘gun to fuss: ‘How, dem sojers wuz tellin’ us what ain’t so, ’cause ain’t nobody got no right to take what belongs to Marster and Mist’ess.’ And Ma jined in: ‘Sho’ it ain’t no truf in what dem Yankees wuz a-sayin’, and us went right on living’ just like us always done ’til Marse Billie called us together and told us de war wuz over and us wuz free to go whar us wanted to go, and us could charge wages for our work.
“When freedom comed my pa wanted us to move off right away over to Mr. Smithies’ place so our family could be together, but us stayed on wid Marse Billie de rest of dat year. Den pa and ma moved to Lexin’ton, whar pa digged walls and ditches and made right good pay. Ma took all four of us chillun and run a good farm. Us got along fine.
“‘Fore de War, all work stopped on de plantation for de funeral of a slave. Grandma didn’t think chillun ought to see funerals, so de first one I ever seed, wuz when ma died two years atter de War wuz done over. A jackleg colored preacher talked, but he didn’t have sense ’nuff to preach a sho’ ’nuff sermon.
“Us heared a heap ’bout dem Ku Kluxers, but none of my folks never even seed any of ’em. Dey wuz s’posed to have done lots of beatin’ of colored folks, but nobody knowed who dem Ku Kluxers wuz.
“A long time atter de War I got married to Traverse Colquitt. De weddin’ took place at my sister’s house, and us sho’ did have a big weddin’ and a fine dinner afterwards. Den next day my husband carried me to whar he wuz born, and his ma give us another big fine dinner. She had a table longer dan this room, and it wuz just loaded with all sorts of good things. De white folkses dat my husband had used to work for had sent some of de good vittals.
“Most of my life atter de War wuz spent in Lexin’ton. Does you know anythin’ ’bout Mr. John Bacon dat used to run de only hotel dar den? Well, I worked for him for many a year. His daughter, Miss Mamie Bacon, lives here in Athens and she is old and feeble like me. She lives ’bout four blocks from here, and whenever I’se able to walk dat far, I goes to see her to talk ’bout old times, and to git her to ‘vise me how to git along. I sho’ly does love Miss Mamie.
“My husband died ’bout a year ago. Us had eight boys and two girls, but dey ain’t but four of our chillun livin’ now. Least, I thinks dey is all four alive. Two of my sons lives somewhar in Alabama, and one son stays in New York. My only livin’ daughter lives wid me here, pore thing! Since she seed one of her chillun killed last year, she ain’t had no mind a t’all. I’se tryin’ to look atter her and de other child. Her husband done been dead a long time. My neighbors helps me, by bringin’ me a little to eat, when dey knows I ain’t got nothin’ in de house to cook. De storekeeper lets me have a little credit, but I owe her so much now dat I’se ‘shamed to ax her to let me have anythin’ else. De white folkses on Prince Avenue is right good to let me have dey clo’es to wash, and de young gals in the neighborhood helps me to do de washin’. I sho’ is hopin’ de old age pension will soon git started comin’ to me. Some dat I know, has been gittin’ dey old age pensions two or three months. I done signed up for mine twict, so maybe it will ‘gin to come ‘fore I is done plum wore out.”
When her visitor was ready to leave, Martha hobbled to the door and bade her an affectionate farewell. “Goodbye, Lady! I prays for you every night. May de good Lord bless you.”