Interviewer: Grace McCune
Person Interviewed: Willis Cofer
Location: Athens, Georgia
Willis was enjoying the warm sunshine of an April morning as he sat on his small porch. Apparently, he was pleased because someone actually wanted to hear him talk about himself. His rheumatism had been painful ever since that last bad cold had weakened him, but he felt sure the sunshine would “draw out all the kinks.” Having observed the amenities in regard to health and weather, the old man proceeded with his story:
“Eden and Calline Cofer was my pa and ma and us all lived on de big old Cofer plantation ’bout five miles from Washin’ton, Wilkes. Pa b’longed to Marse Henry Cofer and ma and us chillun wuz de property of Marse Henry’s father, Marse Joe Cofer.
“I wuz borned in 1860, and at one time I had three brudders, but Cato and John died. My oldest brudder, Ben Cofer, is still livin’ and a-preachin’ de Gospel somewhar up Nawth.
“Chilluns did have de bestes’ good times on our plantation, ’cause Old Marster didn’t ‘low ‘em to do no wuk ’til dey wuz 12 years old. Us jus’ frolicked and played ’round de yard wid de white chilluns, but us sho’ did evermore have to stay in dat yard. It wuz de cook’s place to boss us when de other Niggers wuz off in de fields, and evvy time us tried to slip off, she cotch us and de way dat ‘oman could burn us up wid a switch wuz a caution.
“Dere warn’t no schools for us to go to, so us jes’ played ’round. Our cook wuz all time feedin’ us. Us had bread and milk for breakfas’, and dinner wuz mos’ly peas and cornbread, den supper wuz milk and bread. Dere wuz so many chilluns dey fed us in a trough. Dey jes’ poured de peas on de chunks of cornbread what dey had crumbled in de trough, and us had to mussel ‘em out. Yessum, I said mussel. De only spoons us had wuz mussel shells what us got out of de branches. A little Nigger could put peas and cornbread away mighty fast wid a mussel shell.
“Boys jes’ wore shirts what looked lak dresses ’til dey wuz 12 years old and big enough to wuk in de field. Den dey put ‘em on pants made open in de back. Dem britches would look awful funny now, but dey wuz all us had den, and all de boys wuz mighty proud when dey got big enough to wear pants and go to wuk in de fields wid grown folkses. When a boy got to be a man enough to wear pants, he drawed rations and quit eatin’ out of de trough.
“All de slave quarters wuz log cabins and little famblies had cabins wid jes’ one room. Old Marster sho’ did want to see lots of chilluns ’round de cabins and all de big famblies wuz ‘lowed to live in two-room cabins. Beds for slaves wuz made by nailing frames, built out of oak or walnut planks to de sides of de cabins. Dey had two or three laigs to make ‘em set right, and de mattresses wuz filled wid wheat straw. Dere warn’t no sto’-bought stoves den, and all our cookin’ wuz done in de fireplace. Pots wuz hung on iron cranes to bile and big pones of light bread wuz cooked in ovens on de hearth. Dat light bread and de biscuits made out of shorts wuz our Sunday bread and dey sho’ wuz good, wid our home-made butter. Us had good old corn bread for our evvyday bread, and dere ain’t nothin’ lak corn bread and buttermilk to make healthy Niggers. Dere wouldn’t be so many old sick Niggers now if dey et corn bread evvyday and let all dis wheat bread and sto’-bought, ready-made bread alone ‘cept on Sunday.
“Dere wuz four or five acres in Marster’s big old gyarden, but den it tuk a big place to raise enough for all de slaves and white folkses too in de same gyarden. Dere wuz jus’ de one gyarden wid plenty of cabbage, collards, turnip greens, beans, corn, peas, onions, ‘taters, and jus’ evvything folkses laked in de way of gyarden sass. Marster never ‘lowed but one smokehouse on his place. It wuz plumb full of meat, and evvy slave had his meat rations weighed out reg’lar. Dere wuz jes’ one dairy house too whar de slaves got all de milk and butter dey needed. Marster sho’ did b’lieve in seeing dat his Niggers had a plenty to eat.
“Marster raised lots of chickens and de slaves raised chickens too if dey wanted to. Marster let ‘em have land to wuk for deyselves, but dey had to wuk it atter dey come out of his fields. All dey made on dis land wuz deir own to sell and do what dey wanted to wid. Lots of ‘em plowed and hoed by moonlight to make deir own crops.
“Us used to hear tell of big sales of slaves, when sometimes mammies would be sold away off from deir chilluns. It wuz awful, and dey would jes’ cry and pray and beg to be ‘lowed to stay together. Old Marster wouldn’t do nothin’ lak dat to us. He said it warn’t right for de chilluns to be tuk away from deir mammies. At dem sales dey would put a Nigger on de scales and weigh him, and den de biddin’ would start. If he wuz young and strong, de biddin’ would start ’round $150 and de highest bidder got de Nigger. A good young breedin’ ‘oman brung $2,000 easy, ’cause all de Marsters wanted to see plenty of strong healthy chillun comin’ on all de time. Cyarpenters and bricklayers and blacksmiths brung fancy prices from $3,000 to $5,000 sometimes. A Nigger what warn’t no more’n jes’ a good field hand brung ’bout $200.
“Dem bricklayers made all de bricks out of de red clay what dey had right dar on most all de plantations, and de blacksmith he had to make all de iron bars and cranes for de chimblies and fireplaces. He had to make de plow points too and keep de farm tools all fixed up. Sometimes at night dey slipped off de place to go out and wuk for money, a-fixin’ chimblies and buildin’ things, but dey better not let demselves git cotched.
“Mammy wove de cloth for our clothes and de white folkses had ‘em made up. Quilts and all de bed-clothes wuz made out of homespun cloth.
“De fus’ Sadday atter Easter wuz allus a holiday for de slaves. Us wuz proud of dat day ’cause dat wuz de onlies’ day in de year a Nigger could do ‘zactly what he pleased. Dey could go huntin’, fishin’ or visitin’, but most of ‘em used it to put in a good days wuk on de land what Marster ‘lowed ‘em to use for deyselves. Some of ‘em come to Athens and help lay bricks on a new buildin’ goin’ up on Jackson Street. No Ma’am, I done forgot what buildin’ it wuz.
“Us Niggers went to de white folkses churches. Mr. Louis Williams preached at de Baptist Church on de fust Sundays, and Meferdiss (Methodist) meetin’s wuz on de second Sundays. Mr. Andy Bowden and Mr. Scott Cowan wuz two of de Meferdiss preachers. Me and pa jined de Baptis’ Church. Ma wuz jes’ a Meferdiss, but us all went to church together. Dey had de baptizin’s at de pool and dere wuz sho’ a lot of prayin’ and shoutin’ and singin’ goin’ on while de preacher done de dippin’ of ‘em. De onliest one of dem baptizin’ songs I can ricollect now is, Whar de Healin’ Water Flows. Dey waited ’til dey had a crowd ready to be baptized and den dey tuk a whole Sunday for it and had a big dinner on de ground at de church.
“De sho’ ‘nough big days wuz dem camp meetin’ days. White folkses and Niggers all went to de same camp meetin’s, and dey brung plenty ‘long to eat—big old loafs of light bread what had been baked in de skillets. De night before dey sot it in de ovens to rise and by mawnin’ it had done riz most to de top of de deep old pans. Dey piled red coals all ’round de ovens and when dat bread got done it wuz good ‘nough for anybody. De tables wuz loaded wid barbecued pigs and lambs and all de fried chicken folkses could eat, and all sorts of pies and cakes wuz spread out wid de other goodies.
“Evvy plantation gen’ally had a barbecue and big dinner for Fourth of July, and when sev’ral white famblies went in together, dey did have high old times tryin’ to see which one of ‘em could git deir barbecue done and ready to eat fust. Dey jus’ et and drunk all day. No Ma’am, us didn’t know nuffin’ ’bout what dey wuz celebratin’ on Fourth of July, ‘cept a big dinner and a good time.
“When slaves got married, de man had to ax de gal’s ma and pa for her and den he had to ax de white folkses to ‘low ‘em to git married. De white preacher married ‘em. Dey hold right hands and de preacher ax de man: ‘Do you take dis gal to do de bes’ you kin for her?’ and if he say yes, den dey had to change hands and jump over de broomstick and dey wuz married. Our white folkses wuz all church folkses and didn’t ‘low no dancin’ at weddin’s but dey give ‘em big suppers when deir slaves got married. If you married some gal on another place, you jus’ got to see her on Wednesday and Sadday nights and all de chilluns b’longed to de gal’s white folkses. You had to have a pass to go den, or de patterollers wuz sho’ to git you. Dem patterollers evermore did beat up slaves if dey cotched ‘em off dey own Marster’s place ‘thout no pass. If Niggers could out run ‘em and git on deir home lines dey wuz safe.
“On our place when a slave died dey washed de corpse good wid plenty of hot water and soap and wropt it in a windin’ sheet, den laid it out on de coolin’ board and spread a snow white sheet over de whole business, ’til de coffin wuz made up. De windin’ sheet wuz sorter lak a bed sheet made extra long. De coolin’ board wuz made lak a ironin’ board ‘cept it had laigs. White folkses wuz laid out dat way same as Niggers. De coffins wuz made in a day. Dey tuk de measurin’ stick and measured de head, de body, and de footses and made de coffin to fit dese measurements. If it wuz a man what died, dey put a suit of clothes on him before dey put him in de coffin. Dey buried de ‘omans in da windin’ sheets. When de Niggers got from de fields some of ‘em went and dug a grave. Den dey put de coffin on de oxcart and carried it to de graveyard whar dey jus’ had a burial dat day. Dey waited ’bout two months sometimes before dey preached de fun’ral sermon. For the fun’ral dey built a brush arbor in front of de white folkses church, and de white preacher preached de fun’ral sermon, and white folkses would come lissen to slave fun’rals. De song most sung at fun’rals wuz Hark from de Tomb. De reason dey had slave fun’rals so long atter de burial wuz to have ‘em on Sunday or some other time when de crops had been laid by so de other slaves could be on hand.
“When white folkses died deir fun’rals wuz preached before dey wuz buried. Dat wuz de onliest diff’unce in de way dey buried de whites and de Niggers. Warn’t nobody embalmed dem days and de white folkses wuz buried in a graveyard on de farm same as de Niggers wuz, and de same oxcart took ‘em all to de graveyard.
“Our Marster done de overseein’ at his place hisself, and he never had no hired overseer. Nobody never got a lickin’ on our plantation lessen dey needed it bad, but when Marster did whup ‘em dey knowed dey had been whupped. Dere warn’t no fussin’ and fightin’ on our place and us all knowed better’n to take what didn’t b’long to us, ’cause Old Marster sho’ did git atter Niggers what stole. If one Nigger did kill another Nigger, dey tuk him and locked him in da jailhouse for 30 days to make his peace wid God. Evvy day de preacher would come read de Bible to him, and when de 30 days wuz up, den dey would hang him by de neck ’til he died. De man what done de hangin’ read de Bible to de folkses what wuz gathered ’round dar while de murderer wuz a-dyin’.
“Its de devil makes folkses do bad, and dey all better change and serve God-a-Mighty, so as he kin save ‘em before its too late. I b’lieve folkses ‘haved better dem days dan dey does now. Marstar made ‘em be good ’round his place.
“When us turned Marster’s watch dogs loose at night, dey warn’t nothin’ could come ’round dat place. Dey had to be kept chained up in de daytime. Sometimes Marster let us take his dogs and go huntin’ and dey wuz de best ‘possum trailers ’round dem parts. When dey barked up a ‘simmon tree, us allus found a ‘possum or two in dat tree. Sometimes atter us cotched up lots of ‘em, Marster let us have a ‘possum supper. Baked wid plenty of butter and ‘tatoes and sprinkled over wid red pepper, dey is mighty good eatments. My mouf’s jus’ a-waterin’ ’cause I’m thinkin’ ’bout ‘possums.
“Yes Ma’am, us had corn shuckin’s, and dey wuz big old times. Evvybody from plantations miles ’round would take time out to come. Sometimes de big piles of corn would make a line most a half a mile long, but when all de Niggers got at dat corn de shucks sho’ would fly and it wouldn’t be so long before all de wuk wuz done and dey would call us to supper. Dere wuz barbecue and chickens, jus’ a plenty for all de Niggers, and corn bread made lak reg’lar light bread and sho’ enough light bread too, and lots of ‘tato pies and all sorts of good things.
“Atter da War wuz over, dey jus’ turned de slaves loose widout nothin’. Some stayed on wid Old Marster and wukked for a little money and dey rations.
“Pa went down on the Hubbard place and wukked for 40 dollars a year and his rations. Ma made cloth for all de folkses ’round ’bout. Dey fotched deir thread and she wove de cloth for 50 cents a day. If us made a good crop, us wuz all right wid plenty of corn, peas, ‘tatoes, cabbage, collards, turnip greens, all de hog meat us needed, and chickens too. Us started out widout nothin’ and had to go in debt to de white folkses at fust but dat wuz soon paid off. I never had no chance to go to school and git book larnin’. All de time, us had to wuk in de fields.
“Ku Kluxers went ’round wid dem doughfaces on heaps atter de War. De Niggers got more beatin’s from ‘em dan dey had ever got from deir Old Marsters. If a Nigger sassed white folkses or kilt a hoss, dem Kluxers sho’ did evermore beat him up. Dey never touched me for I stayed out of deir way, but dey whupped my pa one time for bein’ off his place atter dark. When dey turned him loose, he couldn’t hardly stand up. De Yankees jus’ about broke up de Ku Kluxers, but day sho’ wuz bad on Niggers while dey lasted.
“I wuz ’bout 21 years old when us married. Us never had no chillun and my wife done been daid for all dese long years, I don’t know how many. I can’t wuk and I jus’ has to stay hyar wid my daid brother’s chillun. Dey is mighty good to me, but I gits awful lonesome sometimes.
“No Ma’am, I ain’t never seed but one ghost. Late one night, I wuz comin’ by de graveyard and seed somethin’ dat looked lak a dog ‘ceppin’ it warn’t no dog. It wuz white and went in a grave. It skeered me so I made tracks gittin’ ‘way from dar in a hurry and I ain’t never bean ’round no more graveyards at night.
“When I passes by de old graveyard on Jackson Street, I ‘members lots of folkses whats buried dar, bofe white folkses and slaves too, for den white folkses put dey slaves whar dey aimed to be buried deyselves. Dat sho’ used to be a fine graveyard.
“Us all gwine to git together someday when us all leaves dis old world. I’m ready to go; jus’ a-waitin’ for de Lord to call me home, and I ain’t skeered to face de Lord who will judge us all de same, ’cause I done tried to do right, and I ain’t ‘fraid to die.”
Uncle Willis was tired and sent a little boy to the store for milk. As the interviewer took her departure he said: “Good-bye Missy. God bless you. Jus’ put yourself in de hands of de Lord, for dey ain’t no better place to be.”