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Person Interviewed: Celestia Avery
Place of Birth: Troupe County, LaGrange GA
“A Few Facts Of Slavery” As Told By Celestia Avery—ex-Slave
[MAY 8 1937]
Mrs. Celestia Avery is a small mulatto woman about 5 ft. in height. She has a remarkably clear memory in view of the fact that she is about 75 years of age. Before the interview began she reminded the writer that the facts to be related were either told to her by her grandmother, Sylvia Heard, or were facts which she remembered herself.
Mrs. Avery was born 75 years ago in Troupe County, LaGrange, Ga. the eighth oldest child of Lenora and Silas Heard. There were 10 other children beside herself. She and her family were owned by Mr. & Mrs. Peter Heard. In those days the slaves carried the surname of their master; this accounted for all slaves having the same name whether they were kin or not.
The owner Mr. Heard had a plantation of about 500 acres and was considered wealthy by all who knew him. Mrs. Avery was unable to give the exact number of slaves on the plantation, but knew he owned a large number. Cotton, corn, peas, potatoes, (etc.) were the main crops raised.
The homes provided for the slaves were two room log cabins which had one door and one window. These homes were not built in a group together but were more or less scattered over the plantation. Slave homes were very simple and only contained a home made table, chair and bed which were made of the same type of wood and could easily be cleaned by scouring with sand every Saturday. The beds were bottomed with rope which was run backward and forward from one rail to the other. On this framework was placed a mattress of wheat straw. Each spring the mattresses were emptied and refilled with fresh wheat straw.
Slaves were required to prepare their own meals three times a day. This was done in a big open fire place which was filled with hot coals. The master did not give them much of a variety of food, but allowed each family to raise their own vegetables. Each family was given a hand out of bacon and meal on Saturdays and through the week corn ash cakes and meat; which had been broiled on the hot coals was the usual diet found in each home. The diet did not vary even at Christmas only a little fruit was added.
Each family was provided with a loom and in Mrs. Avery’s family, her grandmother, Sylvia Heard, did most of the carding and spinning of the thread into cloth. The most common cloth for women clothes was homespun, and calico. This same cloth was dyed and used to make men shirts and pants. Dye was prepared by taking a berry known as the shumake berry and boiling them with walnut peelings. Spring and fall were the seasons for masters to give shoes and clothing to their slaves. Both men and women wore brogan shoes, the only difference being the piece in the side of the womens.
One woman was required to do the work around the house there was also one slave man required to work around the house doing odd jobs. Other than these two every one else was required to do the heavy work in the fields. Work began at “sun up” and lasted until “sun down”. In the middle of the day the big bell was rung to summon the workers from the field, for their mid-day lunch. After work hours slaves were then free to do work around their own cabins, such as sewing, cooking (etc.)
“Once a week Mr. Heard allowed his slaves to have a frolic and folks would get broke down from so much dancing” Mrs. Avery remarked. The music was furnished with fiddles. When asked how the slaves came to own fiddles she replied, “They bought them with money they earned selling chickens.” At night slaves would steal off from the Heard plantation, go to LaGrange, Ga. and sell chickens which they had raised. Of course the masters always required half of every thing raised by each slave and it was not permissible for any slave to sell anything. Another form of entertainment was the quilting party. Every one would go together to different person’s home on each separate night of the week and finish that person’s quilts. Each night this was repeated until every one had a sufficient amount of covering for the winter. Any slave from another plantation, desiring to attend these frolics, could do so after securing a pass from their master.
Mrs. Avery related the occasion when her Uncle William was caught off the Heard plantation without a pass, and was whipped almost to death by the “Pader Rollers.” He stole off to the depths of the woods here he built a cave large enough to live in. A few nights later he came back to the plantation unobserved and carried his wife and two children back to this cave where they lived until after freedom. When found years later his wife had given birth to two children. No one was ever able to find his hiding place and if he saw any one in the woods he would run like a lion.
Mr. Heard was a very mean master and was not liked by any one of his slaves. Secretly each one hated him. He whipped unmercifully and in most cases unnecessarily. However, he sometimes found it hard to subdue some slaves who happened to have very high tempers. In the event this was the case he would set a pack of hounds on him. Mrs. Avery related to the writer the story told to her of Mr. Heard’s cruelty by her grandmother. The facts were as follows: “Every morning my grandmother would pray, and old man Heard despised to hear any one pray saying they were only doing so that they might become free niggers. Just as sure as the sun would rise, she would get a whipping; but this did not stop her prayers every morning before day. This particular time grandmother Sylvia was in “family way” and that morning she began to pray as usual. The master heard her and became so angry he came to her cabin seized and pulled her clothes from her body and tied her to a young sapling. He whipped her so brutally that her body was raw all over. When darkness fell her husband cut her down from the tree, during the day he was afraid to go near her. Rather than go back to the cabin she crawled on her knees to the woods and her husband brought grease for her to grease her raw body. For two weeks the master hunted but could not find her; however, when he finally did, she had given birth to twins. The only thing that saved her was the fact that she was a mid-wife and always carried a small pin knife which she used to cut the navel cord of the babies. After doing this she tore her petticoat into two pieces and wrapped each baby. Grandmother Sylvia lived to get 115 years old.
Not only was Mr. Henderson cruel but it seemed that every one he hired in the capacity of overseer was just as cruel. For instance, Mrs. Henderson’s grandmother Sylvia, was told to take her clothes off when she reached the end of a row. She was to be whipped because she had not completed the required amount of hoeing for the day. Grandmother continued hoeing until she came to a fence; as the overseer reached out to grab her she snatched a fence railing and broke it across his arms. On another occasion grandmother Sylvia ran all the way to town to tell the master that an overseer was beating her husband to death. The master immediately jumped on his horse and started for home; and reaching the plantation he ordered the overseer to stop whipping the old man. Mrs. Avery received one whipping, with a hair brush, for disobedience; this was given to her by the mistress.
Slaves were given separate churches, but the minister, who conducted the services, was white. Very seldom did the text vary from the usual one of obedience to the master and mistress, and the necessity for good behavior. Every one was required to attend church, however, the only self expression they could indulge in without conflict with the master was that of singing. Any one heard praying was given a good whipping; for most masters thought their prayers no good since freedom was the uppermost thought in every one’s head.
On the Heard plantation as on a number of others, marriages were made by the masters of the parties concerned. Marriage licenses were unheard of. If both masters mutually consented, the marriage ceremony was considered over with. After that the husband was given a pass to visit his wife once a week. In the event children were born the naming of them was left entirely to the master. Parents were not allowed to name them.
Health of slaves was very important to every slave owner for loss of life meant loss of money to them. Consequently they would call in their family doctor, if a slave became seriously ill. In minor cases of illness home remedies were used. “In fact,” Mrs. Avery smilingly remarked, “We used every thing for medicine that grew in the ground.” One particular home remedy was known as “Cow foot oil” which was made by boiling cow’s feet in water. Other medicines used were hoarhound tea, catnip tea, and castor oil. Very often medicines and doctors failed to save life; and whenever a slave died he was buried the same day. Mrs. Avery remarked, “If he died before dinner the funeral and burial usually took place immediately after dinner.”
Although a very young child, Mrs. Avery remembers the frantic attempt slave owners made to hide their money when the war broke out. The following is a story related concerning the Heard family. “Mr. Heard, our master, went to the swamp, dug a hole, and hid his money, then he and his wife left for town on their horses. My oldest brother, Percy, saw their hiding place; and when the Yanks came looking for the money, he carried them straight to the swamps and showed than where the money was hidden.” Although the Yeard [TR: typo “Heard”] farm was in the country the highway was very near and Mrs. Avery told of the long army of soldiers marching to La Grange singing the following song: “Rally around the flag boys, rally around the flag, joy, joy, for freedom.” When the war ended Mr. Heard visited every slave home and broke the news to each family that they were free people and if they so desired could remain on his plantation. Mrs. Avery’s family moved away, in fact most slave families did, for old man Heard had been such a cruel master everyone was anxious to get away from him. However, one year later he sold his plantation to Mr George Traylor and some of the families moved back, Mrs. Avery’s family included.
Mrs. Avery married at the age of 16; and was the mother of 14 children, three of whom are still living. Although she has had quite a bit of illness during her life, at present she is quite well and active in spite of her old age. She assured the writer that the story of slavery, which she had given her, was a true one and sincerely hoped it would do some good in this world.