Person Interviewed: Rezin (Parson) Williams
Date of Interview: September 18 and 24, 1937
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Date of Birth: March 11, 1822
Place of Residence: 2610 Pierpont Street, Mount Winans, Baltimore, MD
References: Baltimore Morning Sun, December 10, 1928. Registration Books of Board of Election Supervisors Baltimore Court House.
Personal interviews with “Parson” Rezin Williams, on Thursday afternoon, September 18 and 24, 1937, at his home, 2610 Pierpont Street, Mount Winans, Baltimore, Md.
Oldest living Negro Civil War veteran; now 116 years old.
Oldest registered voter in Maryland and said to be the oldest “freeman” in the United States.
Said to be oldest member of Negro family in America with sister and brother still living, more than a century old.
Father worked for George Washington.
In 1864 when the State Constitution abolished slavery and freed about 83,000 Negro slaves in Maryland, there was one, “Parson” Rezin Williams, already a freeman. He is now living at the age of 116 years, in Baltimore City, Maryland, credited with being the oldest of his race in the United States who served in the Civil War.
He was born March 11, 1822, at “Fairview”, near Bowie, Prince Georges County, Maryland—a plantation of 1000 acres, then belonging to Governor Oden Bowie’s father. “Parson” Williams’ father, Rezin Williams, a freeman, was born at “Mattaponi”, near Nottingham, Prince Georges County, the estate of Robert Bowie of Revolutionary War fame, friend of Washington and twice Governor of Maryland. The elder Rezin Williams served the father of our country as a hostler at Mount Vernon, where he worked on Washington’s plantation during the stormy days of the Revolution.
There is perhaps nowhere to be found a more picturesque and interesting character of the colored race than “Parson” Williams, who, besides serving as a colored bishop of the Union American Methodist Church (colored) for more than a half century, is the composer of Negro spirituals which were popular during their day. He attended President Lincoln’s inauguration and subsequently every Republican and Democratic presidential inauguration, although he himself is a Republican. Lincoln, according to Williams, shook hands with him in Washington.
One of Williams’ sons, of a family of fourteen children, was named after George Washington, and another after Abraham Lincoln. The son, George Washington Williams, died in 1912 at the age of seventy-three years.
“Parson” Williams, serving the Union forces as a teamster, hauled munitions and supplies for General Grant’s army, at Gettysburg. On trips to the rear, he conveyed wounded soldiers from the line of fire. He also served under General McClellan and General Hooker.
Although now confined to his home with infirmities of age, he posesses all his faculties and has a good memory of events since his boyhood days. Due to the fact that his grandmother was an Indian the daughter of an Indian chieftan, alleged to be buried in a vault in Baltimore County, Williams was a freeman like his father and hired himself out.
Williams claims that his father, when a boy, accompanied Robert Bowie, for whom he was working, to Mount Vernon, where he first met George Washington. He said that General Washington once became very angry at his father because he struck an unruly horse, exclaiming: “The brute has more sense than some slaves. Cease striking the animal.”
Robert Bowie, the third son of Capt. William and Margaret (Sprigg) Bowie, was born at “Mattaponi”, near Nottingham, March 1750. As a captain of a company of militia organized at Nottingham, he accompanied the Maryland forces when they joined Washington in his early campaign near New York. He and Washington became friends. In 1791, when Captain William Bowie died, his son Robert inherited “Mattaponi”. He was the first Democratic governor to be elected, one of the presidential electors for Madison, and a director of the first bank established at Annapolis.
Williams recalls hearing his father say that when Washington died, December 14, 1799, many paid reverence by wearing mourning scarfs and hatbands.
He recalls many interesting incidents during slavery days. He said that slaves could not buy or sell anything except with the permission of their master. If a slave was caught ten miles from his master’s home, and had no signed permit, he was arrested as a runaway and harshly punished.
There was a standing reward for the capture of a runaway. The Indians who caught a runaway slave received a “match coat.” The master gave the slave usually ten to ninety-nine lashes for running off. What slaves feared most was what they called the “nine ninety-nine” or 99 lashes with a rawhide whip, and sometimes they were unmercifully flogged until unconcious. Some cruel masters believed Negroes had no souls. The slaves at Bowie, however, declared “Parson” Williams, were pretty well treated and usually respected the overseers. He said that the slaves at Bowie mostly lived in cabins made of slabs running up and down and crudely furnished. Working time was from sunrise until sunset. The slaves had no money to spend and few masters allowed them to indulge in a religious meeting or even learn about the Bible.
Slaves received medical attention from a physician if they were seriously ill. When a death occured, a rough box would be made of heavy slabs and the dead Negro buried the same day on the plantation burying lot with a brief ceremony, if any. The grieving darkeys, relatives, after he was “eased” in the ground, would sing a few spirituals and return to their cabins.
Familiar old spirituals were composed by “Parson” Williams, including Roll De Stones Away, You’ll Rise in De Skies, and Ezekiel, He’se Comin Home.
Following is one of Williams’ spirituals:
When dat are ole chariot comes,
I’m gwine to lebe you:
I’m bound for de promised land
I’m gwine to lebe you.
I’m sorry I’m gwine to lebe you,
Farewell, oh farewell
But I’ll meet you in de mornin
Farewell, oh farewell.
Still another favorite of “Parson” Williams, which he composed on Col. Bowie’s plantation just before the Civil War, a sort of rallying song expressing what Canada meant to the slaves at that time, runs thus:
I’m now embarked for yonder shore
There a man’s a man by law;
The iron horse will bear me o’er
To shake de lion’s paw.
Oh, righteous Father, will thou not pity me
And aid me on to Canada, where all the slaves are free.
Oh, I heard Queen Victoria say
That if we would forsake our native land of slavery,
And come across de lake
That she was standin’ on de shore
Wid arms extended wide,
To give us all a peaceful home
Beyond de rollin’ tide.
Interesting reminiscences are recalled by “Parson” Williams of his early life. He said that he still remembers when Mr. Oden Bowie (later governor) left with the army of invasion of Mexico (1846-1848), and of his being brought home ill after several years was nursed back to health at “Fairview”. Governor Bowie died on his plantation in 1894 and is buried in the family burying ground there.
He was the first president of the Maryland Jockey Club. Governor Bowie raised a long string of famous race horses that became known throughout the country. From the “Fairview” stables went such celebrated horses as Dickens, Catespy, Crickmore, Commensation, Creknob, who carried the Bowie colors to the front on many well-contested race courses. After Governor Bowie’s death, the estate became the property of his youngest son, W. Booth Bowie.
“Fairview” is located in the upper part of what was called the “Forest” of Prince Georges County, a few miles southwest of Collington Station. It is a fine type of old Colonial mansion built of brick, the place having been in the posession of the family for some time previous. “Fairview” is one of the oldest and finest homes in Maryland. The mansion contains a wide hall and is a typical Southern home.
Baruch Duckett married Kitty Bean, a granddaughter of John Bowie, Sr., the first of his name to come to Prince Georges County. They had but one daughter, whose name was Kitty Bean Duckett, and she married in 1800 William Bowie of Walter. Baruch Duckett outlived his wife and died in 1810. He devised “Fairview” to his son-in-law and the latter’s children, and it ultimately became the property of his grandson, afterward known as Col. William B.[TR.?] Bowie, who made it his home until 1880, when he gave it to his eldest son, Oden, who in 1868 became Governor of Maryland. Governor Bowie was always identified with the Democratic Party.
“Parson” Williams’ wife, Amelia Addison Williams died August 9, 1928, at the age of 94 years. The aged negro is the father of 14 children, one still living,—Mrs. Amelia Besley, 67 years old, 2010 Pierpont Street, Mount Winans, Baltimore, Maryland. His brother, Marcellus Williams, and a single sister, Amelia Williams, both living, reside on Rubio street, Philidelphia, Pa. According to “Parson” Williams, they are both more than a century old and are in fairly good health. Besides his children and a brother and a sister, Williams has several grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren living.
President Lincoln, Williams says, was looked upon by many slaves as a messenger from heaven. Of course, many slave masters were kind and considerate, but to most slaves they were just a driver and the slaves were work horses for them. Only once during his lifetime does Williams recall tasting whisky, when his cousin bought a pint. It cost three cents in those days. He said his mother used to make beer out of persimmons and cornhusks, but they don’t make it any more, so he doesn’t even drink beer now. He would much rather have a good cigar. He has since a boy, smoked a pipe.
By special permission of plantation owners in Prince Georges, St. Marys, Baltimore and other counties in Maryland, he was often permitted to visit the darkeys and conduct a religious meeting in their cabins. He usually wore a long-tailed black “Kentucky” suit with baggy trousers and sported a cane.
Usually when servants or slaves in those days found themselves happy and contented, it was because they were born under a lucky star. As for eating, they seldom got chicken, mostly they ate red herring and molasses—they called black strap molasses. They were allowed a herring a day as part of their food. Slaves as a rule preferred possums to rabbits. Some liked fish best. Williams’ favorite food was cornpone and fried liver.
“Once before de wah, I was ridin Lazy, my donkey, a few miles from de boss’ place at Fairview, when along came a dozen or more patrollers. Dey questioned me and decided I was a runaway slave and dey wuz gwine to give me a coat of tar and feathers when de boss rode up and ordered my release. He told dem dreaded white patrollers dat I was a freeman and a ‘parson’.”
When the slaves were made free, some of the overseers tooted horns, calling the blacks from their toil in the fields. They were told they need no longer work for their masters unless they so desired. Most of the darkeys quit “den and dar” and made a quick departure to other parts, but some remained and to this day their descendants are still to be found working on the original plantations, but of course for pay.
Describing the clothing worn in summer time by the slaves, he said they mostly went barefooted. The men and boys wore homespun, three-quarter striped pants and sometimes a large funnel-shaped straw hat. Some wore only a shirt as a covering for their body.
“In winter oxhide shoes were worn, much too large, and the soles contained several layers of paper. We called them ‘program’ shoes, because the paper used for stuffing, consisted of discarded programs. We gathered herbs from which we made medicine, snake root and sassafras bark being a great remedy for many ailments.”
Williams, though himself not a slave by virtue of the fact that his grandmother was an Indian, was considered a good judge of healthy slaves, those who would prove profitable to their owners, so he often accompanied slave purchasers to the Baltimore slave markets.
He told of having been taken by a certain slave master to the Baltimore wharf, boarded a boat and after the slave dealer and the captain negotiated a deal, he, Williams, not realizing that he was being used as a decoy, led a group of some thirty or forty blacks, men, women and children, through a dark and dirty tunnel for a distance of several blocks to a slave market pen, where they were placed on the auction block.
He was told to sort of pacify the black women who set up a wail when they were separated from their husbands and children. It was a pitiful sight to see them, half naked, some whipped into submission, cast into slave pens surrounded by iron bars. A good healthy negro man from 18 to 30 would bring from $200 to $800. Women would bring about half the price of the men. Often when the women parted with their children and loved ones, they would never see them again.
Such conditions as existed in the Baltimore slave markets, which were considered the most important in the country, and the subsequent ill treatment of the unfortunates, hastened the war between the states.
The increasing numbers of free negroes also had much to do with causing the civil war. The South was finding black slavery a sort of white elephant. Everywhere the question was what to do with the freeman. Nobody wanted them. Some states declared they were a public nuisance.
“Uncle Rezin”, by which name some called him, since slavery days, was, besides being engaged in preaching the Gospel, journeying from one town to another, where he has performed hundreds of marriages among his race, baptised thousands, performed numerous christenings and probably preached more sermons than any Negro now living. He preached his last sermon two years ago. He says his life’s work is now through and he is crossing over the River Jordan and will soon be on the other side. Since the Civil War he has made extra money for his support during depression times by doing odd jobs of whitewashing, serving as a porter or janitor, cutting wood, hauling and running errands, also serving as a teamster, picking berries and working as a laborer. He has had several miraculous escapes from death during his long life. Twice during the past quarter of a century his home at Mount Winans has been destroyed by fire, when firemen rescued him in the nick of time, and some years ago, when he was suddenly awakened during a severe windstorm, his house was unroofed and blew down. When workmen were clearing away the debris in search for “Uncle” Rezin, some hours later, a voice was heard coming from a large barrel in the cellar. It was from Williams, who somehow managed to crawl in the barrel during the storm, and called out: “De Lord hab sabed me. You all haul me out of here, but I’se all right.” Scabo, his pet dog, was killed by the falling debris during the storm. Firemen at Westport state that three years ago, when fire damaged “Uncle” Rezin’s home, the aged negro preacher refused to be rescued, and walked out of the building through stifling smoke, as though nothing had happened. When veterans of a great war have been mowed down by the scythe of Father Time until their numbers are few, an added public interest attaches to them. Baltimore septuagenarians remember the honor paid to the last surviving “Old Defenders”, who faced the British troops at North Point in 1814, and now the few veterans of the War of Secession, whether they wore the blue or the gray, receive similar attention. A far different class, one peculiarly associated with the strife between the North and the South, are approaching the point of fading out from the life of today—the old slaves, and original old freemen. “Parson” Williams tops the list of them all.