Interviewer: Sadie B. Hornsby
Person Interviewed: Mary Colbert
Location: Athens, Georgia
(NOTE: This is the first story we have had in which the client did not use any dialect. Mary Colbert’s grammar was excellent. Her skin was almost white, and her hair was quite straight.
None of us know what a “deep” slave was. It may have the same meaning as outlandish Negro. The “outlandish Negroes” were those newly arrived Negroes who had just come in from any country outside of the United States of America, and were untrained. They were usually just from Africa.
Sarah H. Hall)
With the thermometer registering 93 degrees in the shade on a particularly humid July day, the visitor trudged up one steep, rocky alley and down another, hesitantly negotiated shaky little bridges over several ravines, scrambled out of a ditch, and finally arrived at the address of Mary Colbert. It was the noon hour. A Negro man had tied his mule under an apple tree in one corner of Mary’s yard. The animal was peacefully munching hay while his master enjoyed lunch from a battered tin bucket. Asked if Mary was at home, the man replied: “Yessum, jus’ call her at de door.”
A luxuriant Virginia creeper shaded the front porch of Mary’s five-room frame house, where a rap on the front door brought the response: “Here I am, honey! Come right on through the house to the back porch.” The aged mulatto woman was hanging out clothes on a line suspended between two peach trees. To the inquiry for Mary, she answered: “Yes, Honey, this is Mary. They say I am old, childish, and hellish; anyway, this is Mary.”
“Dear, let’s go in my parlor,” she suggested in a cultured voice. “I wouldn’t dare go out on the front porch wearing this dirty dress. It simply isn’t my way of living.” Mary is about five feet tall and wears her straight, snowy-white hair in a neat knot low on the back of her head. The sparkle in her bright brown eyes bespeaks a more youthful spirit than her wrinkled and almost white face would indicate. She was wearing a soiled print dress, brown cotton hose, and high-topped black shoes. In remarkably good English for one of her race she told that her daughter’s family lives with her, “so that I won’t be right by myself.” Then she began her story:
“Honey, what is it you want me to tell you. Where was I born? Oh, my child! I was born right here in dear old hilly Athens. Yes, that’s where I was born. Polly Crawford was my mother, and she belonged to Major William H. Crawford before he gave her to his son, Marse John Crawford. Now about my father, that is the dream. He died when I was just a little child. They said he was Sandy Thomas and that he was owned by Marster Obadiah Thomas, who lived in Oglethorpe County. All I can remember about my grandparents is this: When I found my grandma, Hannah Crawford, she was living on Major Crawford’s plantation, where Crawford, Georgia, is now. Grandma was a little, bitty woman; so little that she wore a number one shoe. She was brought here from Virginia to be a field hand, but she was smart as a whip, and lived to be 118 years old. I used to tell my mother that I wished I was named Hannah for her, and so Mother called me Mary Hannah.
“I can’t bring my grandfather to mind very clearly. I do remember that my mother took me to Penfield to see him, and told me if I wasn’t a good little girl he would surely whip me. They called him ‘Uncle Campfire’, because he had such a fiery temper. For a living, after he got to be an old man, he made cheers (chairs), but for the life of me I don’t know who he belonged to, because Major Crawford sold him before I was born.
“There were five of us children: Nat, Solomon, Susannah, Sarah, and myself. Marse John gave Solomon to his daughter, Miss Fannie, when she married Marse William H. Gerdine. Susannah belonged to Miss Rosa Golden, and Sarah and I belonged to the other Miss Fannie. She was Marse John’s sister. Nat was Marse John’s house boy, and our mother was his cook. We children just played around the yard until we were large enough to work.
“Yes, my dear, I was born in Marse John’s back yard. He lived in a two-story frame house on Dougherty Street, back of Scudder’s School. The two slave houses and the kitchen were set off from the house a little piece out in the yard. It was the style then to have the kitchen built separate from the dwelling house.
“Lord bless your life, Honey! We didn’t live in log cabins, as you call them. There were two slave houses. The one Aggie lived in was two-story, the other one had just one story and they were both weatherboarded like Marse John’s own house. The grown folks slept on beds made with tall oak posts. There were no metal springs then and the beds were corded instead. The straw-stuffed mattress ticks were made with plain and striped material, and pillows were filled with cotton. We children slept on trundle beds, which were pushed up under the big beds in the daytime, and pulled out for us to sleep on at night.
“No Ma’m, there was never any money given to me in slavery time. Remember, Dear, when the yankees came through here, I was only ten years old. Misses Fannie and Ann Crawford were Major Crawford’s daughters, and they kept house for Marse John. That morning in May I was wearing a sleeveless apron, and they (Miss Fannie and Miss Ann) put a bag of gold and silver, and some old greenback Confederate money in my apron and told me to hold on to it. Miss Fannie and Miss Ann, both of them, patted me on the head and said: ‘Now, be a good little girl and don’t move.’ On came the Blue Coats: they went all over the house searching everything with their guns and swords shining and flashing. I was so scared the sweat was running down my face in streams. Bless your life! When they came to the bedroom where I was standing by a bed, holding that money inside my apron, they didn’t even glance at me the second time. Little did they think that little slave girl had the money they were hunting for. After the yankees were gone, I gave it all back to Miss Fannie, and she didn’t give me the first penny. If any of the money was given to my mother she didn’t tell me about it.
“I am going to tell you the truth about what we had to eat, so listen now. It was egg bread, biscuits, peas, potatoes—they they were called ‘taters then—artichoke pickles, tea cakes, pies, and good old healthy lye hominy. There was plenty of meat served, but I was not allowed to eat that, as I was never a very strong child. I was a fool about stale bread, such as biscuit, cornbread, and light bread. Mother was a fine cook and her battercakes would just melt in your mouth. Of course, you know we had no stoves in those days and the cooking was done in open fireplaces, in ovens and pots. Oh yes! We had a garden. There was only one on the place and enough was raised in it to feed all of the people living there.
“I don’t remember eating ‘possums, rabbits, squirrels and fish until I went to Jackson, Mississippi, with Miss Rosa. There were plenty of those meats in Mississippi and I was then getting old enough and healthy enough to be allowed to eat them.”
At this point, Mary insisted on serving lunch for her visitor, saying that she had lived with white people and knew how to cook. After a polite refusal, the story was continued:
“I was laughing at myself just the other day about those homespun dresses and sleeveless aprons I wore as a child. I reckon that was a sign you were coming to ask me about those things. I kept one of those dresses of mine until my own baby girl wore it out, and now I am sorry I let her wear it, for it would be so nice to have it to show you. We wore just a one piece costume in summer and had calico and muslin dresses for Sunday. Wintertime, I wore a balmoral petticoat, osnaburg drawers, and er-r-r. Well, Jacob! I never thought I would live to see the day I’d forget what our dresses were called. Anyway they were of woolen material in a checked design, and were made with a full skirt gathered on to a deep yoke. Uncle Patrick Hull—he was a deep slave belonging to Mr. A.L. Hull—made all the shoes for Marse John’s slaves. We all wore brass-toed brogans.
“Oh, good! I should smile! A better man than Marse John never lived. Nobody better not beat his slaves. Marse John was the postmaster. He married Miss Sallie Eden, and everybody said she was mighty good, but I never knew her for she died when I was a baby. Marse John and his wife, Miss Sallie, had three children. They were: Miss Fannie, Miss Rosa and Marse Allie. Miss Annie Crawford, who teaches in the school here, is Marse Allie’s daughter. She don’t know me so well, but I know mighty well who she is. I think I have already told you that Misses Fannie and Rosa kept house for their brother, Marse John, after their mother died.
“Darling, please get this right: the plantation is a dream to me. If I should try to tell you about it, I am sure it would be only what my mother told me about it in the years long after the surrender. Whether the plantation was the property of Marse John or his father, William H. Crawford, I don’t know, but I am sure there was an overseer, and I am quite sure it was a very large plantation. You know the town of Crawford was named for my white folks. The only thing I can be sure of, from my own memory, is of the things that took place here in Athens.
“Breakfast had to be served promptly at 7:30. When that 9:00 o’clock bell sounded at night, God bless your soul! You had to be in your house, and you had to be in bed by 10:00 o’clock. Marse John never punished but just two of his slaves that I can remember, but I have seen them get several good whippings. They were Ned and William, Aggie’s and Lucy’s boys, and Marse John cowhided them for misbehaving.
“There were jails during slavery time, but Marse John kept his slaves straight himself and did not allow any of them to be taken to jail. I have never seen slaves sold, but I have seen droves of them marching by, being taken to Watkinsville to be sold.
“No! No! Oh! No! You had better not dare let white people know that you could read, in those days. I remember one colored man, Alfred Evans, who used to read the Bible during slavery time. All the learning I have, I got after we were made free. There were two colored churches in Athens; one was Baptist and the other was Methodist. Yankee ladies came down from the North and taught us to read and write. I have often considered writing the history of my life and finally decided to undertake it, but I found that it was more of a job than I had expected it to be, and then too, I would have to tell too much, so I thought best to leave it alone.
“I went to church but very little during slavery time. However, I dearly loved to go to Sunday school, and never missed an opportunity of attending. One of our Sunday school songs was worded something like this:
‘I want to be an angel,
And with the angels stand.’
“My favorite song began:
‘Around the Throne in Heaven,
Ten Thousand children stand.’
“OO! Yes, I know how they buried folks in slavery time. For caskets they used straight, white pine boxes that they called coffins. They didn’t have funerals like they do now. A preacher would say a few words at the grave and then he prayed, and after that everybody sang something like: ‘I will arise and go to Jesus.’ I was a singer in my younger days.
“All I remember ’bout Negroes going off to the North was when their masters took them along on trips to wait on them. Bless your life! That was one time when the ones that could read and write had the advantage. They were usually chosen to go along so if anything happened to the Marster on the trip, they could write back home. I never saw patrollers, but I heard that they used to beat up Negroes who were caught away from home without a pass. Marse John kept his slaves supplied with passes at all necessary times.
“Not all the slaves had to work on Saturday afternoons. This was their time of the week to get together and have a little fun around their quarters. Sunday mornings they went to church, as a rule, and on Sunday nights they visited each other and held prayer meetings in their homes. Don’t get me wrong. They had to have passes to go visiting and attend those prayer meetings.
“Christmas time was a holiday season for slaves, and they had everything good you could want to eat. Listen, Child, I am telling you the truth. They even had pumpkin pie. Oh, yes! Santa Claus came to see slave children. Once I got too smart for my own good. Miss Fannie and Miss Ann had told us to go to bed early. They said if we weren’t asleep when Santa Claus got there, he would go away and never come back. Well, that night I made up my mind to stay awake and see Santa Claus. Miss Fannie and Miss Ann slipped into our quarters right easy and quiet and were filling up stockings with candy, dolls, and everything you can imagine. While they were doing that, they turned around and saw me with my eyes wide open. Right there my Santa Claus ended. We didn’t have any special observance of New Year’s Day. It was the same as any other day.
“Mother said they had cornshuckings, quiltings, and cotton pickings on the plantation. She told me a good deal about the cornshuckings: about how they selected a general, whose job was to get up on top of the corn pile and holler at the top of his voice, leading the cornshucking song, while the others all shucked the corn and sang. After the corn was all shucked there were always fine eats. I can remember the quiltings myself. The women went from one house to another and quilted as many as 12 quilts in one night sometimes. After the quilts were all finished they had a big spread of good food too. Now it takes a whole month to quilt one quilt and nothing to eat.
“What games did we play? Let me see. Oh! yes, one of them was played to the rhyme:
‘Chickimy, chickimy, Craney Crow
I went to the well to wash my toe,
When I got back my chicken was gone
What time, Old Witch?’
“Then we would run and chase each other. Another game was played to the counting-out by the rhyme that started:
‘Mollie, Mollie Bright, three-score and ten.’
“Honey, there is no use to ask me about Raw Head and Bloody Bones. When folks started talking about that, I always left the room. It is a shame how folks do frighten children trying to make them get quiet and go to sleep. I don’t believe in ha’nts and ghosts. Since I have been grown, I have been around so many dead folks I have learned that the dead can’t harm you; its the living that make the trouble.
“When his slaves were taken sick, Marse John always called in a doctor. An old woman, who was known as ‘Aunt Fannie,’ was set aside to nurse sick slaves. Dr. Joe Carlton was Marse John’s doctor. What I am going to tell you is no fairy tale. Once I was so sick that Marse John called in Dr. Carlton, Dr. Richard M. Smith, Dr. Crawford Long, and Dr. James Long, before they found out what was wrong with me. I had inflammatory rheumatism and I wore out two and a half pairs of crutches before I could walk good again. Now, Dr. Crawford Long is a great and famous man in history, but it is sure true that he doctored on this old Negro many years ago.
“Honey, don’t flatter me. Don’t you know a little girl 10 years old can’t remember everything that went on that far back. A few things they dosed the slaves with when they were sick was horehound tea, garlic mixed with whiskey, and the worm-few (vermifuge?) tea that they gave to Negro children for worms. That worm-few dose was given in April. Asafetida was used on us at all times and sage tea was considered a splendid medicine.
“When news came that Negroes had been freed there was a happy jubilee time. Marse John explained the new freedom to his slaves and we were glad and sorry too. My mother stayed with Marse John until he died. I was still a child and had never had to do anything more than play dolls, and keep the children in the yard. Lord, Honey! I had a fine time those days.
“It wasn’t so long after the surrender before schools for Negroes were opened. It looked like they went wild trying to do just like their white folks had done. As for buying homes, I don’t know where they would have gotten the money to pay for homes and land.
“At the time I married I was a washerwoman for the white folks. My first husband was Isaac Dixon, who came from some place in Alabama and had been owned by Dr. Lipscomb, the chancelor of the university. Dr. Lipscomb married us in the colored Methodist Church, and that night the church was crowded to overflowing. I wore a white dress made with a long train; that was the style then. After the ceremony, my mother served cake and wine at her house. Our six children were prettier than you, but only three of them lived to get grown. Our white friends named our children. My first husband died and then I married Jones Colbert, who belonged to Marse Fletcher Colbert of Madison County. We just went around to the preacher’s house and got married. Jones was an old man when I married him. He was a preacher. He is dead now and so are all my children except one. I have one grandson, and this is the shameful part about him; his mother won’t married when he was born, but of course she married later.
“Now I am going to tell you the truth as I see it. Abraham Lincoln was an instrument of God sent to set us free, for it was God’s will that we should be freed. I never did hitch my mind on Jeff Davis; like the children of Israel, he had his time to rule. Booker T. Washington! Well, now I didn’t give him a thought. He had to do his part. His mistress had taught him to read.
“Why did I join the church? Well, when the white folks sent their help off to Mississippi trying to keep them slaves, my sister and I went with Miss Rosa Crawford to Jackson. Before I left home my mother gave me an alabaster doll and told me to be a good girl and pray every night. Well, I never saw so many slave-houses in my life as I saw in Mississippi. Every night when I heard a colored man named Ben praying in his room that made me think of what my mother had told me and I grew more and more homesick for her. Finally one night I crept into Uncle Ben’s room and asked him to tell me about God, and he did. After that, every night I went into his room and we prayed together. Yes, Honey, I found God in Jackson, Mississippi, and I joined the church just as soon as I could after I got back to my mother and dear old Athens.
“Yes, Honey, I was raised and loved by my own white folks and, when I grew to be old enough and large enough, I worked for them. I have been with, or worked for, white folks all my life and, just let me tell you, I had the best white folks in the world, but it was by God’s plan that the Negroes were set free.”