Interviewer: W. B. Allen
Person Interviewed: Berry Smith
Location: Forest, Mississippi
Place of Birth: Sumpter County, Alabama
“Uncle Berry” Smith is five feet two or three inches tall. He is scrupulously neat. He is very independent for his age, which is calculated at one hundred and sixteen years. He believes the figure to be correct. His mind is amazingly clear.
“I was born an’ bred in Sumpter County, Alabama, in de prairie lan’, six miles from Gainesville. Dat’s where I hauled cotton. It was close to Livingston, Alabama, where we lived.
“I was twelve years old when de stars fell. Dey fell late in de night an’ dey lighted up de whole earth. All de chaps was a-runnin’ ‘roun’ grabbin’ for ‘em, but none of us ever kotched[FN: caught] one. It’s a wonder some of’ em didn’ hit us, but dey didn’. Dey never hit de groun’ atall.
“When dey runned de Injuns out de country, me an’ another chap kotched one o’ dem Injun’s ponies an hung him up[FN: tied him up] in de grape vines. He said it was his pony an’ I said it was mine.
“Marse Bob’s boy tol’ us his daddy was gwine a-whup us for stealin’ dat pony, so we hid out in de cane for two nights. Marse Bob an’ his brother whupped us’ til we didn’ want to see no more Injuns or dey ponies, neither.
“I was born a slave to Old Marse Jim Harper an’ I fell to Marse Bob. Marse Jim bought my pa an’ ma from a man by de name o’ Smith, an’ Pa kep’ de name. Dat’s how come I is Berry Smith.
“Dey didn’ have no schools for us an’ didn’ teach us nothin’ but work. De bull-whip an’ de paddle was all de teachin’ we got. De white preachers used to preach to de Niggers sometimes in de white folks’ church, but I didn’ go much.
“We had fun in dem days in spite o’ ever’thing. De pranks we used to play on dem paterollers! Sometimes we tied ropes ‘crost de bridge an’ de paterollers’d hit it an’ go in de creek. Maybe we’d be fiddlin’ an’ dancin’ on de bridge (dat was de grown folks, but de chaps ‘ud come, too) an’ dey’d say, ‘Here come de paterollers!’ Den we’d put out. If we could git to de marster’s house, we was all right. Marse Bob wouldn’ let no pateroller come on his place. Marse Alf wouldn’, neither. Dey said it was all right if we could git home widout bein’ kotched, but we have to take dat chance.
“At de Big House dey had spinnin’ wheels an’ a loom. Dey made all de clo’es[FN: clothes] on de place. Homespun was what dey called de goods. My ma used to spin an’ weave in de loom room at de Big House.
“Dey was two plantations in de marster’s lan’ an’ dey worked a heap o’ Niggers. I was a house boy an’ didn’ go to de fiel’ much.
“We had overseers on de place, but dey was jus’ hired men. Dey was po’ white folks an’ only got paid ’bout three or fo’ hund’ed dollars a year.
“When we lef’ Alabama we come to Mississippi. We went to de Denham place near Garlandsville. We brought eighteen Niggers. We walked a hund’ed miles an’ it took five days an’ nights. De women an’ little chaps rid[FN: rode] on de wagons (dey had five mules to de wagon) an’ de men an’ de big chaps walked. My pa an’ ma come along.
“We stayed on de Denham place ’bout three years. Den we moved to Homewood an’ stayed five years. I hung de boards for Marse Bob’s house in Homewood.
“Den we come to Forest. Dey brought all de fam’ly over here—all my brothers an’ sisters. Dey was five of’ em—Wash an’ East is de two I ‘members. All o’ us b’longed to de Harper fam’ly. Marse Bob owned us. My ma an’ pa both died here in Forest.
“I he’ped to build dis house for Marse Bob. I cleaned de lan’ an’ lef de trees where he tol’ me. He lived in a little old shack whilst we built de Big House.
“Mr. M.D. Graham put up de firs’ store here an’ de secon’ was put up by my marster.
“I worked in de fiel’ some, but mos’ly I was a house servant. I used to go all over de country a-huntin’ eggs an’ chickens for de fam’ly on’ count dey was so much comp’ny at de house.
“A heap o’ white folks was good to dey Niggers, jus’ as good as dey could be, but a heap of’ em was mean, too. My mistis was good to us an’ so was Marse Jim Harper. He wouldn’ let de boys ‘buse us while he lived, but when he died dey was wild an’ cruel. Dey was hard taskmasters. We was fed good three times a day, but we was whupped too much. Dat got me. I couldn’ stan’ it. De old marster give us good dinners at Chris’mus, but de young ones stopped all dat.
“De firs’ train I ever seen was in Brandon. I went dere to carry some horses for my marster. It sho’ was a fine lookin’ engine. I was lookin’ at it out of a upstairs window an’ when it whistled I’d a-jumped out dat window if Captain Harper hadn’ a-grabbed me.
“I didn’ see no fightin’ in de war. When Gen’l Sherman come th’ough here, he come by Hillsboro. Marse Bob didn’ go to de war. He ‘listed[FN: enlisted], but he come right back an’ went to gittin’ out cross ties for de railroad. He warnt no sojer. Colonel Harper, dat was Marse Alf, he was de sojer. He warnt scared o’ nothin’ or nobody.
“De Yankees ask me to go to de war, but I tol’ ‘em, ‘I aint no rabbit to live in de woods. My marster gives me three good meals a day an’ a good house an’ I aint a-goin’.’ Marse Bob used to feed us fine an’ he was good to us. He wouldn’ let no overseer touch his Niggers, but he whupped us, hisse’f.
“Den de Yankees tol’ me I was free, same as dey was. I come an’ tol’ Marse Bob I was a-goin’. He say, ‘If you don’t go to work, Nigger, you gwine a-git whupped.’ So I run away an’ hid out in de woods. De nex’ day I went to Meridian. I cooked for de sojers two months, den I come back to Forest an’ worked spikin’ ties for de railroad.
“I hear’d a heap of talk ’bout Jeff Davis an’ Abe Lincoln, but didn’ know nothin’ ’bout ‘em. We hear’d ’bout de Yankees fightin’ to free us, but we didn’ b’lieve it ’til we hear’d ’bout de fightin’ at Vicksburg.
“I voted de ‘publican ticket after de surrender, but I didn’ bother wid no politics. I didn’ want none of ‘em.
“De Kloo Kluxers[FN: Ku Klux’s] was bad up above here, but I never seen any. I hear’d tell of ‘em whuppin’ folks, but I don’t know nothin’ ’bout it, much.
“Mos’ all de Niggers dat had good owners stayed wid ‘em, but de others lef’. Some of ‘em come back an’ some didn’.
“I hear’d a heap o’ talk ’bout ever’ Nigger gittin forty acres an’ a mule. Dey had us fooled up ’bout it, but I never seen nobody git nothin’.
“I hope dey won’t be no more war in my time. Dat one was turrible. Dey can all go dat wants to, but I aint a-goin’.
“I seen Gen’l Grant at Vicksburg after de war. (He was a little short man.) All de Niggers went dere for somethin’—me ‘mongst ‘em. I don’t know what we went for.
“I took to steamboatin’ at Vicksburg ’cause I could cut[FN: place for storage or shipment] cotton so good. (I could cut cotton now wid a cotton hook if I warnt so old.)
“I steamboated twixt New Orleans an’ St. Louis on de ‘Commonwealth,’ a freight packet, way up yonder in St. Louis. I don’t know what country dat was in. But de rousters had a big fight one night in New Orleans, shootin’ an’ cuttin’, so I lef’. When I got back to Vicksburg, I quit.
“I picked cotton in de Delta awhile, but de folks, white an’ black, is too hard. Dey don’t care ’bout nothin! I was in Greenville when de water come. I hear’d a noise like de wind an’ I asked dem Niggers, ‘Is dat a storm?’ Dey said, ‘No, dat’s de river comin’ th’ough an’ you better come back ‘fore de water ketch[FN: catch] you.’ I say, ‘If it ketch me it gwine a-ketch me on my way home.’ I aint been back since.
“Den I come back here an’ went to farmin’ an’ I been here ever since. I bought forty-seven acres an’ a nice little house. De house burnt down, but de white folks built me a better one. Dey’s good an’ kin’ to me. Dey say I’s a good man.
“My wife was six year old at de surrender. She b’longed to Marse Alf, but we was free when we married. We had sixteen chillun. Mos’ of ‘em lives ‘roun ‘here. Some in Newton, some in Scott, an’ some in Texas. My wife died two years ago las’ March.
“Marse Bob died right here in dis here house. He died a po’ man. If my old mistis had a-been here she wouldn’ a-let’ em treat him like dey done. If I’d a-been here I wouldn’ a-let’ em done like dat, neither.
“I been a-livin’ by myse’f since my wife died. My son, Oscar, lives on de lan’ an’ rents it from me.
“I don’t know what’s gwine a-happen to de young folks now-a-days. Dey know better, but dey’s wild an’ don’t care ’bout nothin’. I aint got no time to fool wid ‘em. Looks like dey don’t care ’bout workin’ at nothin’.
“I been a-workin’ all my life, an’ I’se seen good times an’ bad times. I loves to work yet. I’s gwine out now soon’s I git my dinner an’ he’p finish pickin’ dat patch o’ cotton. I can pick two hund’ed pounds a day an’ I’s one hund’ed an’ sixteen year old. I picks wid both han’s an’ don’t have to stoop much. My back don’t never ache me atall. My mammy teached me to pick cotton. She took a pole to me if I didn’ do it right. I been a-pickin ever since. I’d ruther pick cotton dan eat, any day.
“But I’se seen enough. I’s jus’ a-waitin’ for de call to meet all my folks in Heaven. Dey’s a better place dan dis an’ I’s a-tryin’ to treat ever’body right so’s I can git to go to it.
“I’s listenin’ hard for dat call an’ I know it won’t be long a-comin’.”