Person Interviewed: Mollie Moss
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Place of Residence: # 88 Auburn Street, Knoxville, Tennessee
There is no street sign or a number on any of the ramshackled frame cottages that seemingly lean with the breezes, first one direction, then another, along the alley that wind’s through the city’s northernmost boundary and stops its meanderings at the doorstep of “Uncle Andrew Moss” and his wife, “Aunt Mollie.”
The City Directory of Knoxville, Tennessee officially lists the Moss residence as # 88 Auburn Street. It rests upon its foundations more substantially, and is in better kept condition than its neighbors. In lieu of a “reg’lar” house number, the aged negro couple have placed a rusty automobile lisence tag of ancient vintage conspicuously over their door. It is their jesture of contempt for their nearest white neighbors who “dont seem to care whedder folkses know whar dey lib an maybe don wants em to.”
As for Aunt Mollie, she holds herself superior to all of her neighbors. She “Ain got no time for po white trash noway.” She shoo’ed two little tow-headed white girls from her doorstep with her broom as she stood in her door and watched a visitor approach. “G’wan way frum here now, can be bodder wid you chillun messin ups my front yard. Take yo tings an go on back to yo own place!”
“Dats way dey do,” she mummled as she lead the visitor inside the cottage, through the dining-room and kitchen into the living-room and bedroom. “Don know what I gwine do when come summer time. Keeps me all time lookin out for dem chilluns. Dey’s dat troublesome. Brings trash in on my flo what I jes scoured, an musses ‘roun, maybe tryin to steal sumpin an me watchin em too. Dey wasnt teached manners and ‘havior in odder folkses houses like what I war.”
When Aunt Mollie learned that it was to hear her story of how she was trained in manners end behaviorism, that the visitor had come, and to hear something of her recollections of slave days, her belligerent mood vanished. The satisfied manner in which she drew up chairs before the fire, took a pinch of snuff and settled her skirts, indicated that was going to be quite a session. She leaned her elbows on her knees, held her head between the palms of her hands and fumbled in her cloudy memory to gather a few facts to relate.
Uncle Andrew, the more intelligent of the two, and quick to seize upon his opportunity, began his reminiscences immediately, saying “Honey, wait now,” when his wife thought herself well organized to talk, and frequently broke into his narrative. “Wait untell I gits through. Den you can talk.” Aunt Mollie would frown and grunt, mumble to herself as she rocked back and forth in her chair. She pulled the two long braids of brown silky hair, streaked with white, and tied at the ends with cotton strings. She spat vigorously into the fire, kept muttering and shuffling her feet, which were encased in men’s shoes.
At last it came Aunt Mollie’s turn to talk war-times. Uncle Andrew, well pleased with his recital, retired to his corner by the hearth and listened “mannerdly”-after first warning the visitor in a gentle undertone, that “My wife she ain got much mem’ry an she don hear good.” Aunt Mollie’s rambling reminiscences backed up his statement. She began.
“Reckon I mus be ’bout eighty-two, three year old. I dunno exactly. Ef I knowed whar to find em, deys some my white folkes lib in dis town. Seem like I can ‘member dey names. I b’longed to Marster Billy Cain, and was raised on his farm in Campbell county, Tennessee. Oh, ’bout six, seven mile from Jacksboro. Wish I could go back dar some time. Ain been dar sence me an Moss married an live eight, ten or some more years in a log cabin he built for us. We was married March 7, de day atter Cleveland was ‘lected presi-dent. In 1885 did you say? Well, reckon you’re right. I ain had no schoolin an I can ‘member lots o tings I used to know.”
“Billy Cain worked me in de fields. An his wife Miss Nancy say she gwine stop it, ’cause I was so pretty she fraid somebody come steal me.” Aunt Mollie buried her face in her apron and had a good laugh. “Dey said I was de pretties’ girl anywhars about. Had teeth jes like pearls. Whoops! Look at em now. Ain got ’nuff left to chaw wid. You notices how light-complected I is? My own father was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. De Yanks captured him an killed him.”
“I was hoein in de field dat time Moss com ‘long and see me and say he gwine marry me. An, jes like he tell you, we was married in less dan six months. We been livin togedder evy since and we gits along good. We have had blessins’ and got a lot to be thankful for. Could have more to eat sometimes, but we gits along someways. I am a good cook. Miss Nancy she teached me all kinds o cookin, puttin up berries, makin pickles and bakin bread and cake an evy’ting. Her ole man Cain give us good grub dem days. Monday mornins’ we go to de Cains to git rations for de week. Dey gib us three pounds wheat, a peck o meal, a galon o molasses, two pound o lard, two pound o brown sugar, rice an evy’ting. I use to have plates an china white folks gib me. White woman come one day, say she wan buy ‘em. Took plum nigh all I had. Did’n pay me much o nothin’ either.”
“Yes, Lord. I does ‘member ’bout de war. I’ve see’d de blue an I’ve see’d de grey. In 1862 I see’d de soldiers formin’ in line. I was a great big girl. Dem swords glisen’ like stars. Can’ member whar dey was goin dat time. But I ain forgit de times soldiers come foragin. Dey got all dey wanted, too. Hep’ dey sef’s an dont pay for it, never. Soldier see a chicken go under de house, he plop down and shoot, and den call me to crawl under de house and fetch it out.” Aunt Mollie buried her head in her apron again and laughed like a child. “Lordy how scared I was of de old gander dat blowed at me, whilst I was tryin’ to drag ‘em out alive, when I see’d de soldiers comin’.”
“Billy Cain, he was brudder-in-law to Old Townslee, who lived on a plantation in Alabama. How come my mother was give to Cain an come to Tennessee, was one mornin’ Old Townslee rode his horse out under a tree to blow up de slaves. Blow de horn you know, to call ‘em to work. Somebody shot ‘im. Right off his horse. It was so dark, ‘fore daylight, an’ couldnt see and dey never did find out who shot ‘im. Heap o white folks had enemies dem days. So de slaves he owned was divided munxt his chilluns. My mother was one of nine dat come to Billy Cain dat way.”
“Talk ’bout your shootin jest for devilment. Lemme tell you ’bout old men John Wynn. He live down dar ’bout ten mile from whar Moss lived when he was a boy. I’ve heard em tell it many a time. Dey say John Wynn had 185 slaves. Evy time it come George Washington’s birthday, Old Wynn he had a feast and invite all de slaves! He celebratin! he say. He seta a long table wid all kind good tings to eat. An he count de slaves, so’s to be sure dey all come. An’ den he’d take an pick out one and shoot him! Den he say, “Now youse all can go ‘head an eat. Throw dat nigger ‘side an we bury im in mornin’.” And he walks off to de big house. No! He wasn’t drunk. Jes de debil in ‘im. Well, he shot ten, twelve, maybe thirty dat way. An den de white folks hanged ‘im to a tree. Hanged im t’well he was good and dead, dey did.”
“Now folkes can ‘joy dey victuals wid sech goin’s on. De slaves git so’s dey scared to hear de bell ring. Don’ know what it mean. Maybe death, maybe fire, maybe nudder sale o some body. Gwine take ‘em way. But when de bell ring dey had to come. Let dat ole bell ring and de woods was full o negroes. Maybe 500 hundred come from all over date county.”
Aunt Mollie was beginning to ramble and babble incoherently, her memories of her own and the experiences of others all confused in her mind. When she had about finished a story about how one of the slave women, “bust de skull” of the head of her marster,’” ’cause she was nussin a sick baby an’ he tell her she got to git out in dat field an hoe” and the gory details of what the shovel did to the white marster’s head, it was time for the visitors to close the interview.
Both Uncle Andrew and Aunt Mollie followed the visitor to the front door, and wished her “All de luck in de world. An thank you for comin’. An come see us agin, nudder time.”