Person Interviewed: Henry F. Pyles
Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Date of Birth: August 15, 1856
That’s how the niggers say old Bab Russ used to make the hoodoo “hands” he made for the young bucks and wenches, but I don’t know. ’cause I was too trusting to look inside de one he make for me, and anyways I lose it, and it no good nohow! Old Bab Russ live about two mile from me, and I went to him one night at midnight and ask him to make me de hand. I was a young strapper about sixteen years old, and thinking about wenches pretty hard and wanting something to help me out wid the one I liked best. Old Bab Russ charge me four bits for dat hand, and I had to give four bits more for a pint of whiskey to wet it wid, and it wasn’t no good nohow!
Course dat was five-six years after de war. I wasn’t yet quite eleven when de war close. Most all the niggers was farming on de shares and whole lots of them was still working for their old Master yet. Old Bab come in there from deep South Carolina two-three years befo’ and live all by hisself. De gal I was worrying about had come wid her old pappy and mammy to pick cotton on de place. and dey was staying in one of de cabins in the “settlement” but dey didn’t live there all de time. I don’t know whether I believed in conjure much or not in dem days, but anyways I tried it that once and it stirred up sech a rumpus everybody called me “Head” after that until after I was married and had a peck of children. Old Bab Russ was coal black, and he could talk African or some other unknown tongue. and all the young bucks and wenches was mortal ‘fraid of him! Well sir. I took dat hand he made for ne and set out to try it on dat gal. She never had give ne a friendly look even, and when I would speak to her polite she just hang her head and say nothing! We was all picking cotton, and I come along up behind her and decided to use my “Hand.” I had bought me a pint of whiskey to wet the hand wid. but I was scared to take out of my pocket and let the other niggers see it, so I jest set down in de cotton row and taken a big mouthful. I figgered to hold it in my sought until I catched up vid that gal and then blow it on the hand jest before I tech her on the arm and speak to her. Well, I take be a big mouthful. but it was so hot and scaldy it jest slip right on down my throat! Then I had to take another, and when I was gitting up I kind of stumbled and it slip down, too! Then I see all the others get way on ahead, and I took smother big mouthful, the last in the bottle, and drap the bottle under a big stalk and start picking fast and holding the whiskey in my mouth this time. I missed about half the cotton I guess but at last I catch up with de rest and git close up behind dat purty gal. Then I started to speak to her, but forgot I had de whiskey in mouth and I lost most of it down my neck and all over my chin, and then I strangled a little on the rest, so as when I went to aquirt it on de “hand” I didn’t have nothing left to squirt but a little spit. That make me a little nervous right then, but anyways I step up behind dat gal and lay my hand on her arm and speak polite and start to say something, but I finish up what I start to say laying on my neck with my nose shoved up under a cotton stalk about four rows away! De way that gal lam me across the head was a caution! We was in new ground, and she jest pick up a piece of old root and whopped me right in de neck with it! That raise sech a laugh on me that I never say nothing to her for three-four days, but after while I gets myself wound up to go see her at her home. I didn’t know how she going to act, but I jest took my foot in my hand and went on over. Her old peppy and mammy was asleep in the back of the room on a pallet, and we set in front of the fireplace on our hunches and jest looked at the fire and punched it up a little. It wasn’t cold, but de malary fog was thick all through de bottoms. After while I could smell the whiskey soaked up in dat “hand” I had in my pocket, and I was scared she could smell it too. So I jest reached in my pocket and teched it for luck, than I reached over and teched her arm. She jerked it back so quick she knocked over the churn and spilled but buttermilk all over de floor! Dat make do old folks mad, and dey grumble and holler and told de gal. “Send dat black rapscallion on out of here!” But I didn’t ge.
I kept on moving over closer and she kept on backing away. but after while I reach over and put my hand on her knee. All I was going to do was say something but I shore forgot what it was the next minnit, ’cause she jest whinnied lak a scared hoss and give me a big push. I was settin straddledy-legged on the floor, and that push sent me on my head in the hot ashes in the fur corner of the chimney! Then the old man jump up and make for me and I make for the door! It was dark all ‘cepting the light from the chimney, and I fumble all up and down, the door jamb before I find de latch pin. The old man shorely git me if he hadn’t stumble over the eating table and whop his hand right down in de dish of fresh made butter. That make him so mad he jest stand and holler and cuss. I git de pin loose and jerk de door open so quick and hard I knock de powder gourd down what was hanging over it, and my feet git caught in the string. The stopper gits knocked out, and when I untangle it from my feet and throw it back in de house it fall in the fireplace. I was running all de time, but I hear dat gourd go “Blammity Blam!” and then all de yelling, but I didn’t go back to see how dey git the hot coals all put out what was scattered all over de cabin! I done drap dat “hand” and I never did see it again. Never did see the gal but two-three times after that, and we never mention about dat night. Her old pappy was too old to work so I never did see him neither, but she must of told about it because all the young bucks called me “Hand” after that for a long time.
Old Bab kept on trying to work his conjure with the old niggers, but the young ones didn’t pay him much mind cause they was hearing about the Gospel and de Lord Jesus Christ. We was all free then, and we could go and come without a pass, and they was always some kind of church meeting going on close enough to go to. Our niggers never did hear about de Lord Jesus until after we was free, but lots of niggers on de other plantations had masters that told them all about him, and some of dem niggers was pretty good at preaching. Then de good church people in de North was sending white preachers amongst us all the time too. Most of de young niggers was Christians by that time. One day old Bab was hoeing in a field and got in a squabble about something with a young gal name Polly, same name as his wife. After while he git so mad he reach up with his fingers and wet than on his tongue and point straight up and say, “Now you got a trick on you! Dere’s a heavy trick on you now! Iffen you don’t change your mind you going pass on before de sun go down!” All de young niggers looked like they want to giggle but afraid to, and the old ones start begging old Bab to take the trick off, but that Polly git her dander up and take in after him with a hoe! She knocked him down, and he jest laid there kicking his feet in the air and trying to keep her from hitting him in the head! Well, that kind of broke up Bab’s charm, so he set out to be a preacher. The Northern whites was paying some of the Negro preachers, so he tried to be one too. He didn’t know nothing about de Bible but to shout loud, so the preacher board at Red Mound never would give him a paper to preach. Then he had to go back to tricking and trancing again. One day he come in at dinner and told his wife to git him something to eat. She told him they aint nothing but some buttermilk, and he says give me some of fat. He hollered around till she fix him a big ash cake and he ate that and she made him another and he ate that. Then he drunk the rest of de gallon of buttermilk and went out and laid down on a tobacco scaffold in de yard and nearly died. After while he jest stiffened out and looked like he was dead, and nobody couldn’t wake him up. ‘Bout forty niggers gathered round and tried but it done no good. Old mammy Polly got scared and sent after the white judge old Squire Wilson, and he tried, and then the white preacher Reverend Dennison tried and old man Gorman tried. He was a infidel, but that didn’t do no good. By that time it was getting dark, and every nigger in a square mile was there, looking on and acting scared. Me and my partner who was a little bit cripple but mighty mart come up to one what all the rumpus was about, and we was jest the age to do anything. He whispered to me to let him start it off and than me finish it while he got a head running start. I ast him what he talking about.
Then he fooled round the house and got a little ball of cotton and soaked it in kerosene from a lamp. It was a brass lamp with a hole and a stopper in the side of the bowl. Wonder he didn’t burn his fool heed off! Then he sidle up close and stuck dat cotton ‘tween old Bab’s toes. Old Bab had the biggest feet I ever see, too. ‘Bout that time I lit a corn shuck in de lamp and run out in de yard and stuck it to de cotton and jest kept right on running! My partner had a big start but I catch up wid his and we lay down in de bresh and listened to everybody hollering and old Bab hollering louder than anybody. Old Bab moved away after that.
All that foolishness happen after the war, but before do war while I was a little boy they wasn’t much foolishness went on I warrant you. I was born on de 15th of August in 1856, and belonged to Mister Addison Pyles. He lived in town, in Jackson, Tennessee, and was a old man when do war broke. He had a nephew named Irvin T. Pyles he raised from a baby, and Mister Irvin kept a store at do corner of de roads at out plantation. The plantation covered about 300 or 400 acres I reckon, and they had about 25 slaves counting de children. The plantation was about 9 miles north of Red Mound, close to Lexington. Tennessee, and about a mile and a half from Parker’s Crossroads where they had a big battle in de war. They wasn’t no white overseer on the place except Mister Irvin, and he stayed in de store or in town and didn’t bother about the farm work. We had a Negro overlooker who was my stepdaddy. His name was Jordan, and he run away wid de Yankees about de middle of do war and was in a Negro Yankee regiment. After he left we jest worked on as usual because we was afraid not to. Several of de men got away like that but he was de only one that got in de army. They was a big house in de middle of de place and a settlement of Negro cabins behind and around it. We called it de settlement, but on other plantations where white folks lived there too they called it de quarters. We always kept this big house clean and ready, and sometimes de white folks come out from town and stay a few days and hunt and fish and look over de crops. We all worked at farm work. Cotton and corn and tobacco mostly. We all laid off Sunday after noontime, but we didn’t have no church nor preaching and we didn’t hear anything ’bout Jesus much until after de emancipation. I reckon old Master wasn’t very religious, ’cause he never tell us ’bout the Holy Word. He jest said to behave ourselves and tell him when we wanted to marry, and not have but one wife. We had little garden patches and cotton patches we could work on Sunday and what de stuff brung we could sell and keep the money. Old Master let us have what we made that way on Sunday. We could buy ribbons and hand soap and coal oil and such at de store. Master Irvin was always honest ’bout continuing de money. too. We didn’t have no carders and spinners nor no weavers on de plantation. They cost too much money to buy just for 25 niggers, and they cost a lot more than field niggers. So we got our clothes sent out to us from in town, and sometimes we was give cloth from de store to make our clothes out of. We got de shorts and seconds from de mill when we had wheat ground, and so we had good wheat bread as well as corn pone, and de big smokehouse was on de place and we had all de neat we wanted to eat. Old Master sent out after de meat he wanted every day or so and we kept him in garden sass that way too.
We was right between de forks of Big Beaver and Little Beaver and we could go fishing without getting far off de place. We couldn’t go far away without a pass, though, and they wasn’t nobody on the place to write us a pass, so we couldn’t go to meeting and dances and sech But de niggers on de other plantations could get passes to come to our place, and so we had parties sometimes there at our place. We always had them on Sundays, ’cause in the evening we would be too tired to work if we set up, and the other masters wouldn’t give passes to their niggers to come over in de evening. We had a white doctor lived at de next plantation, and old Master had a contract with old Dr. Brown to look after us. He had a beard as long as your arm. He come for all kinds of misery except bornings. Then we had a midwife who was a white woman lived down below us. They was poor people renting or living on war land. Nearly all de white folks in that country been there a long tine and their old people got do land from de government for fighting in the Revoluionary War. Most all was from North Carolina-way back. I think old Master’s pappy was from dere in de first place. Old Master had two sons named Newton and Willis. Newton was in do war and was killed, and Willis went to war later and was sick a long time and come home early. Old Master was too old to go.
There was two daughters, Mary, de oldest, married a Holmes, and Miss Laura never did marry I don’t think.
My mammy’s name was Jane, and she was born on de 10th day of May in 1836. I know de dates ’cause old Master kept his book on all his niggers de some as on his own family. Mammy was the nurse of all de children but I think old Master sent her to de plantation about the time I was born. I don’t think I had any pappy. I think I was jest one of then things that happened sometimes in slavery days, but I know old Master didn’t have nothing to do with it, I’m too black. Mammy married a man named Jordan when I was a little baby. He was the overlooker and went off to de Yankees, when dey come for foraging through dat country de first time.
He served in de Negro regiment in de battle at Fort Piller and a lot of Sesesh was killed in dat battle, so when de war was over and Jordan come back home he was a changed nigger and all de whites and a lot of de niggers hated him. All ‘cepting old Master, and he never said a word out of de way to him. Jest told him to come on and work on de place as long as he wanted to. But Jordan had a hard time, and he brung it on his self I reckon. ‘Bout de first thing, he went down to Wildersville Schoolhouse, about a mile from Wildersville, to a nigger and carpet bagger convention and took me and mammy along. That was de first picnic and de first brass band I over see. De band men was all white men and they still had on their blue soldier clothes.
Lots of de niggers there had been in do Union army too, and they had on parts of their army clothes. They took then out from under their coats and their wagon seats and put them on for de picnic.
There was a saloon over in Wildersville, and a lot of them went over there but they was scared to go in, most of them. But a colored delegate named Taylor and my pappy want in and ordered a drink. The bartender didn’t pay them no mind. Then a white man named Billy Britt walked up and throwed a glass of whiskey in Jordan’s face and cussed him for being in de Yankee army. Then a white man from the North named Pearson took up the fight and him and Jordan jumped on Billy Britt, but de crowd stopped them and told pappy to git on back to whar he come from. He got elected a delegate at de convention and went on down to Nashville and helped nominate Brownlow for governor. Then he couldn’t come back home for a while, but finally he did. Old Master was uneasy about de way things was going on, and he come out to de farm and stayed in de big house a while.
One day in broad daylight he was on de gallery and down do road come ’bout 20 bushwhackers in Sesesh clothes on horses and rid up to de gate. Old Master knowed all of then, and Captain Clay Taylor, who had been de master of de nigger delegate, was at the head of them. They had Jordan Pyles tied with a rope and walked along on de ground betwixt two horses.
“Whar you taking my nigger!”. Old Master say. He run down off de gallery and out in de road.
“He ain’t your nigger no more, you know that”, old Captain Taylor holler back.
“He jest as such my nigger as that Taylor nigger was your nigger,
and you ain’t laid hands on him! Now you jest have pity on my nigger!” “Your nigger Jordan been in de Yankee army, and he was in de battle at Fort Piller and help kill our white folks, and you know it!” Old Captain Taylor say, and argue on like that, but old Master jest take hold his bridle and shake his head. “No. Clay”, he say, “that boy maybe didn’t kill Confederates, but you and him both know my two boys killed plenty Yankees, and you forgot I lost one of my boys in de war. Ain’t that enough to pay for letting my nigger alone?” And old Captain Taylor give the word to turn Jordan loose, and they rid on down de road. That’s one reason my stepdaddy never did leave old Master’s place, and I stayed on dere till I was grown and had children. The Yankees cone through past our place three-four times, and one time they had a big battle jest a mile and a half away at Parker’s Crossroads.
I was in de field hoeing, and I remember I hadn’t watered the cows we had hid way down in de woods, so I started down to water them when I first heard de shooting. We had de stock hid down in de woods and all de corn and stuff hid too. ’cause the Yankees and the Sesesh had been riding through quite a lot and either one take anything they needed iffen they found it. First I hear something way off any “Br-r-rump! Then again, and again. Then something sound like popcorn beginning to pop real slow. Then it git faster and I start for de settlement and de big house. All Master’s folks was staying at de big house then, and couldn’t git back to town ‘count of de soldiers, so they all put on they good clothes, with de hoop skirts and little sunshades and the lace pantaloons and got in the buggy to go see de battle! They rid off and it wasn’t long till all the niggers was following behind. We all got to a hill ’bout a half a mile from the crossroads and stopped when we couldn’t see nothing but thick smoke all over de whole place. We could see men on horses come in and out of de smoke, going this way and that way, and then some Yankees on horses broke through de woods right close to us and scattered off down through de field. One of de white officers rid up close and yelled at us and took off his hat, but I couldn’t hear nothing he said.
Then he rid on and catch up with his men. They had stopped and was turning off to one side. He looked back and waved his hat again for us to git away from that, and jest then he clapped his hand to his belly and fell off his hoss.
Our white folks turned their buggy round and made it for home and no mistake! The niggers wasn’t fur behind neither! They fit on back toward our plantation, and some of the fighting was inside it at one corner. For three-four days after that they was burying soldiers ’round there, and some of de graves was on our old place. Long time afterwards people come and moved all them to other graveyards at Shiloh and Corinth and other places. They was about a hundred killed all around there. After de war I married Molly Timberlake and we lived on there ’til 1902, when we come to Indian Territory at Haskell. They wasn’t no Haskell there then and I helped to build dat town, doing carpenter work and the like. We had two boys. Bill and Jim Dick, and eight daughters, Effie, Ida, Etta, Eva, Jessie, Tommie, Bennie and Timmie. Her real name is Timberlake after her mammy. They all went to school and graduated in the high schools. My wife has been dead about ten years.