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Person Interviewed: Morris Hillyer
Location: Alderson, Oklahoma
My father was Gabe Hillyer and my mother was Clarisay Hillyer, and our home was in Rose, Georgia. Our owner was Judge Hillyer. He was de last United States senator to Washington, D. C., before de war.
My mother died when I was only a few days old and the only mother I ever knew was Judge Hillyer’s wife, Miss Jane. Her nine children were all older than I was and when mother died Miss Jane said mother had raised her children and she would raise here. So she took us into her house and we never lived at de quarters any more. I had two sisters, Sally and Sylvia, and we had a room in de Big House and sister Sally didn’t do nothing else but look after me. I used to stand with my thumb in my mouth and hold to Miss Jane’s apron while she knitted.
When Judge Hillyer was elected be sold out his farm and gave his slave a to his children. He owned about twelve or fourteen slaves at this time. He gave me and my sister Sylvia to his son, Dr. Hillyer, and my father to another one of his sons who was studying law. Father stayed with him and took care of him until he graduated. Father learned to be a good carpenter while he lived with George Hillyer. George never married until after de war.
Dr. Hillyer lived on a big plantation but he practiced medicine all de time. He didn’t have much time to look after de farm but he had good overseers and they sure didn’t beat his slaves or mistreat ’em in any way. Dr. Hillyer married a rich girl, Miss Mary Cooley, and her father gave her fifteen slaves when she married and Judge Hillyer gave him five so he had a purty good start from de first and he knowed how to make money so he was a wealthy man when de Rebellion started.
My sister and I didn’t know how to act when we was sent out there among strangers. We had to live in de quarters just like de other niggers, and we didn’t especially like it. I guess I was a sort of bad boy.
There was several more boys about my age and we didn’t have any work to do but just busy ourselves by getting into mischief. We’d ride de calves, chase de pigs, kill de chickens, break up hens nests, and in fact do most everything we hadn’t ought to do. Finally they put us to toting water to de field hands, minding de gaps, taking de cows to pasture and as dat kept us purty busy we wasn’t so bad after dat.
My happiest days was when I was with de old Judge and Miss Jane. I can sit here and think of them old times and it seems like it was just yesterday dat it all happened. He was a great hand to go to town every day and lounge around wid his cronies. I used to go with him, and my how they would argue. Sometimes they would get mad and shake their canes in each other’s faces. I guess they was talking politics.
Our old Master liked cats better than any man I ever saw, and he always had five or six that followed him about de place like dogs. When he went to eat they was always close to him and just as soon as he finished he would always feed them. When he was gone us boys used to throw at his cats or set de dogs on ’em. We was always careful dat no one saw us for if he had known about it he would a-whipped us and no mistake. I wouldn’t a-blamed him either, for I like cats now. I think they are lots of company.
He was a typical Southern gentleman, medium sized, and wore a Van Dyke beard. He never whipped his slaves, and he didn’t have a one dat wouldn’t a-died for him.
Judge Hillyer had one son, William, dat wouldn’t go to college. He made fun of his brothers for going to school so long, and said that he would be ashamed to go and stay five or six years. After de war he settled down and studied law in Judge Akide office and opened a office in Athens, Georgies and he made de best lawyer of them all.
Us boys used to go minting with Master Williams. He hunted rabbits, quails, squirrels, and sometimes he would kill a deer. He hunted mostly with dogs. He never used a gun but very little. Lead was so scarce and cost so much dat he couldn’t afford to waste a bullet on rabbits or snakes. He made his own bullets. The dogs would chase a rabbit into a hollow tree and we’d take a stick and twist his out. Sometimes we’d have nearly all de hide twisted off him when we’d git his out.
Old Judge Hillyer maked a pipe with a long stem. He used to give me ten cents a day to fill it for him. He told me I bad to have $36 at the and of the year, but I never made it. There was a store right close to us and I’d go down there and spend my money for lemon stick candy, ginger cakes, peanuts, and firecrackers. Old Master knowed I wouldn’t save it, and he didn’t care if I did spent it for it was mine to do with just as I pleased.
Every time a circus some to town I’d run off and they wouldn’t see no again all day. Seemed like I just couldn’t help it. I wouldn’t take time to git permission to go. One time to punish no for running off he tied me up by my thumbs, and I had to stay home while de rest went. I didn’t dare try to git loose and run off for I knowed I’d git my jacket tanned if I did. Old Master never laid his hand on as, but I knowed he would if I didn’t do as he told me. He never told us twice to do anything either.
Coins had curious names is them days. A dies was called a thrip. Four pence was about the same value as three cants or maybe a little more. It took three of ‘am to make a thrip. There was all sorts of paper money.
Every first Tuesday slaves were brought in from Virginia and sold on de block. De auctioneer was Cap’n Dorsey. E. M. Cobb was de slave bringer. They would stand de slaves up on de block and talk about what a fine looking specimen of black manhood or womanhood dey was, tell how healthy dey was. look in their mouth and examine their teeth just like they was a horse, and talk about de kind of work they would be fit for and could do. Young healthy boys and girls brought the best prices. I guess they figured dat they would grow to be valuable. I used to stand around and watch de safes take place but it never entered my mind to be afraid for I knowed old Judge wasn’t going to sell me. I thought I was an important member of his family.
Old Judge bought every roguish nigger in the country. He’d take him home and give him the key to everything on de place and say to help hisself. Soon as he got all he wanted to eat he’d quit being a rogue. Old Judge said that was what made niggers steal, they was hungry.
They used to scare us kids by telling us dat a runaway nigger would git us. De timber was awful heavy in de river bottoms, and dey was one nigger dat run off from his master and lived for years in these bottoms. He was there all during de War and come out after de surrender. Every man in dat country owned him at some time or other. His owner sold him to a man who was sure he could catch him — he never did, so he sold him to another slave owner and so on till nearly everybody had him. He changed hands about six or seven times. They would come in droves with blood hounds and hunt for his but dey couldn’t catch him for he knowed them woods too well. He’d feed de dogs and make friends with ’em ard they wouldn’t bother him. He lived on nute, fruit, and wild game, and niggers would slip food to him. He’d slip into town and get whiskey and trade it to de niggers for food.
Judge Hillyer never ‘lowanced his niggers and dey could always have anything on de place to eat. We had so much freedom dat other slave owners in our neighborhood didn’t like for us to come among their slaves for they said we was free niggers and would make their slaves discontented.
After I went to live with Judge Hillyer’s son. Dr. Hillyer, one of my jobs was to tote the girls books to school every morning. All the plantation owners had a colored boy dat did that. After we had toted de books to de school house we’d go back down de road a place and line up and have the “gone-bying-est” fight you ever see. We’d have regular battles. If I got licked in de morning I’d go home and rest up and I’d give somebody a good licking dat evening. I reckon I caught up with my fighting for in all my working life I have always worked with gangs of men of from one to two-hundred and I never struck a man and no man ever struck me.
Jim Williams was a patroller, and how he did like to catch a nigger off de farm without a permit so be could whip him. Jim thought he was de best man in de country and could whip de bent of ’em. One night John Eardin, a big husky feller, was out late. He met Jim and knowed he was in for it. Jim said, “John I’m gonna give you a white man’s chance. I’m gonna let you fight me and if you are de best man, well and good.”
John say, “Master Jim, I can’t fight wid you. Come on and give me my licking, and let me go on home.”
But Jim wouldn’t do it, and he dapped John and called him some names and told him he is a coward to fight him. All dis made John awful mad and he flew into him and give him the terriblest licking a man over toted. He went on home but know he would git into trouble over it.
Jim talked around over the country about what he was going to do to John but everybody told him dat he brought it all on hisself. He never did try to git another nigger to fight with him.
Yes, I guess charms keep off bed luck. I have wore ’em but money always was my best lucky piece. I’ve made lots of money but I never made good use of it.
I was always afraid of ghosts but I never saw one. There was a graveyard beside de road from our house to town and I always was afraid to go by it. I’d abut my eyes and run for dear life till I was past de grave yard. I had heard dat there was a headless man dat stayed there on cold rainy days or foggy nights he’d hide by de fence and throw his head at you. Once a man got hit and he fell right down dead. I believed dat tale and you can imagine how I felt whenever I had to go past there by myself and on foot.
I saw lots of Ku Kluxers but I wasn’t afraid of them. I knowed I hadn’t done nothing and they wasn’t after me. One time I met a bunch of ’em and one of ’em said. “Who is dis feller?” Another one said, “Oh, dat’s Gabe’s foolish boy, come on, don’t bother him.” I always did think dat voice sounded natural but I never did say anything about it. It sounded powerful like one of old Judge’s boys. Dey rode on and didn’t bother me and I never was a bit afraid of ’em any more.
I went to school one month after de war. I never learned much but I learned to read some where along de road dat I come over. My father come from Athens, Georgia, and took us away with him. I learned the carpenter’s trade from him. He was so mean to me dat I run away when I was nineteen. I went back to Rome, Georgia, and got a job with a bridge gang and spent two years with ’em. I went then to Henderson, Kentucky, and worked for ten years. There was hundreds of colored people coming to do mines at Krebs and Alderson and I decided to come along, too. I never worked in de mines but I did all sorts of carpentering for them.
I married in Atoka, Oklahoma, thirty-three years ago. I never had no children.
I’ve made lots of money but somehow it always got away from me. But me and my wife have our little home here and we are both still able to work a little, so I guess we are making it all right.