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Interviewer: Pearl Randolph
Person Interviewed: Willis Dukes
Location: Madison, Florida
Born in Brooks County, Georgia, 83 years ago on February 24th, Willie Dukes jovially declares that he is “on the high road to livin’ a hund’ed years.”
He was one of 40 slaves belonging to one John Dukes, who was only in moderate circumstances. His parents were Amos and Mariah Dukes, both born on this plantation, he thinks. As they were a healthy pair they were required to work long hours in the fields, although the master was not actually cruel to them.
On this plantation a variety of products was grown, cotton, corn, potatoes, peas, rice and sugar cane. Nothing was thrown away and the slaves had only coarse foods such as corn bread, collard greens, peas and occasionally a little rice or white bread. Even the potatoes were reserved for the white folk and “house niggers.”
As a child Willis was required to “tote water and wood, help at milking time and run errands.” His clothing consisted of only a homespun shirt that was made on the plantation. Nearly everything used was grown or manufactured on the plantation. Candles were made in the big house by the cook and a batch of slaves from the quarters, all of them being required to bring fat and tallow that had been saved for this purpose. These candles were for the use of the master and mistress, as the slaves used fat lightwood torches for lighting purposes. Cotton was used for making clothes, and it was spun and woven into cloth by the slave women, then stored in the commissary for future use. Broggan shoes were made of tanned leather held together by tacks made of maple wood. Lye soap was made in large pots, cut into chunks and issued from the smoke house. Potash was secured from the ashes of burnt oak wood and allowed to set in a quantity of grease that had also been saved for the purpose, then boiled into soap.
The cotton was gathered in bags of bear grass and deposited in baskets woven with strips of white oak that had been dried in the sun.
Willis remembers the time when a slave on the plantation escaped and went north to live. This man managed to communicate with his family somehow, and it was whispered about that he was “living very high” and actually saving money with which to buy his family. He was even going to school. This fired all the slaves with an ambition to go north and this made them more than usually interested in the outcome of the war between the states. He was too young to fully understand the meaning of freedom but wanted very much to go away to some place where he could earn enough money to buy his mother a real silk dress. He confided this information to her and she was very proud of him but gave him a good spanking for fear he expressed this desire for freedom to his young master or mistress.
Prayer meetings were very frequent during the days of the war and very often the slaves were called in from the fields and excused from their labors so they could hold these prayer meetings, always praying God for the safe return of their master.
The master did not return after the war and when the soldiers in blue came through that section the frightened women were greatly dependent upon their slaves for protection and livelihood. Many of these black man chose loyalty to their dead masters to freedom and shouldered the burden of the support of their former mistresses cheerfully.
After the war Willis’ father was one of those to remain with his widowed mistress. Other members of his family left as soon as they were freed, even his wife. They thus remained separated until her death.
Willis saw his first bedspring about 50 years ago and he still thinks a feather mattress superior to the store-bought variety. He recalls a humorous incident which occurred when he was a child and had been introduced for the first time to the task of picking a goose.
After demonstrating how it was done to a group of slave children, the person in charge had gone about his way leaving them busily engaged in picking the goose. They had been told that the one gathering the most feathers would receive a piece of money. Sometimes later the overseer returned to find a dozen geese that had been stripped of all the feathers. They had been told to pick only the pin feathers beneath the wings and about the bodies of the geese. Need we guess what happened to the over ambitious children?
He had heard of ice long before he looked upon it and he only thought of it as another wild experiment. Why buy ice, when watermelons and butter could be ley down into the well to keep cool?
One of Willis’ happiest moments was when he earned enough money to buy his first pair of pattern leather shoes. To possess a paid of store bought shoes had been his ambition since he was a child, when he had to shine the shoes of his master and those of the master’s children.
He next owned a horse and buggy of which he was very proud. This increased his popularity with the girls and bye and bye he was married to Mary, a girl with whom he had been reared. Nobody was surprised but Mary, explained Mr. Dukes. “Me and everybody else knowed us ud get married some day. We didn’t jump over no broom neither. We was married like white folks wid flowers and cake and everything.”
Willis Dukes has been in Florida for “Lawd knows how long” and prefers this state to his home state. He still has a few relatives there but has never returned since leaving so long ago.