Person Interviewed: Phyllis Petite
Location: Fort Gibson, Oklahoma
Place of Birth: Rusk County, Texas
I was born in Rusk County, Texas, on a plantation about eight miles east of Belleview. There wasn’t no town where I was born, but they had a church.
My mammy and pappy belonged to a part Cherokee named W. P. Thompson when I was born. He had kinfolks in the Cherokee Nation, and we all moved up here to a place on Fourteen-Mile Creek close to where Hulbert now is. ‘way before I was big enough to remember anything. Then, so I been told, old master Thompson sell my pappy and mammy and one of my baby brothers and me back to one of his neighbors in Texas name of John Harnage.
Mammy’s name was Letitia Thompson and pappy’s was Riley Thompson. My little brother was named Johnson Thompson, but I had another brother sold to a Vann and he always call hisself Harry Vann. His Cherokee master lived on the Arkansas river close to Webber’s Falls and I never did know him until we was both grown. My only sister was Patsy and she was borned after slavery and died at Wagoner, Oklahoma.
I can just remember when Master John Harnage took us to Texas. We went in a covered wagon with oxen and camped out all along the way. Mammy done the cooking in big wash kettles and pappy done the driving of the oxen. I would set in a wagon and listen to him pop his whip and holler.
Master John took us to his plantation and it was a big one, too. You could look from the field up to the Big House and any grown body in the yard look like a little body, it was so far away.
We Negroes lived in quarters not far from the Big House and ours was a single log house with a stick and dirt chimney. We cooked over the hot coals in the fireplace.
I just played around until I was about six years old I reckon, and then they put me up at the Big House with my mammy to work. She done all the cording and spinning and weaving, and I done a whole lot of sweeping and minding the baby. The baby was only about six months old I reckon. I used to stand by the cradle and rock it all day, and when I quit I would go to sleep right by the cradle sometimes before mammy would come and get me.
The Big House had great big rooms in front, and they was fixed up nice, too. I remember when old Mistress Harnage tried me out sweeping up the front rooms. They had two or three great big pictures of some old people hanging on the wall. They was full blood Indians it look like, and I was sure scared of them pictures! I would go here and there and every which-a-way, and anywheres I go them big pictures always looking straight at me and watching me sweep! I kept my eyes right on them so I could run if they moved, and old Mistress take me back to the kitchen and say I can’t sweep because I miss all the dirt.
We always have good eating, like turnip greens cooked in a kettle with hog skins and crackling grease, and skinned corn, and rabbit or possum stew. I liked big fish tolerable well too, but I was afraid of the bones in the little ones.
That skinned corn aint like the boiled hominy we have today. To make it you boil some wood ashes, or have some drip lye from the hopper to put in the hot water. Let the corn boil in the lye water until the skin drops off and the eyes drop out and then wash that corn in fresh water about a dozen times, or just keep carrying water from the spring until you are were out, like I did. Then you put the corn in a crock and set it in the spring, and you got good skinned corn as long as it last, all ready to warm up a little batch at a time.
Master had a big, long log kitchen setting away from the house, and we set a big table for the family first, and when they was gone we Negroes at the house eat at that table too, but we don’t use the china dishes.
The Negro cook was Tilda Chiaholm. She and my mammy didn’t do no outwork. Amt Tilda sure could make them corn-dodgers. Us children would catch her eating her dinner first out of the kettles and when we say something she say: “Go on child, I jest tasting that dinner.”thers and me back to one of his neighbors in Texas name of John Harnage.
In the summer we had cotton homespun clothes, and in winter it had wool mixed in. They was dyed with copperas and wild indigo.
My brother, Johnson Thompson, would get up behind old Master Harnage on his horse and go with him to hunt squirrels so they would go ’round on Master’s side so’s he could shoot them. Master’s old more was named “Old Willow”, and she knowed when to stop and stand real still so he could shoot.
His children was just all over the place! He had two houses full of them! I only remember Bell, Ida, Maley, Mary and Will, but they was plenty more I don’t remember.
That old horn blowed ‘way before daylight, and all the field Negroes had to be out in the row by the time of sun up. House Negroes got up too, because old Master always up to see everybody get out to work.
Old Master Harnage bought and sold slaves most all the time, and some of the new Negroes always acted up and needed a licking. The worst ones got beat up good, too! They didn’t have no jail to put slaves in because when the Masters got done licking them they didn’t need no jail.
My husband was George Petite. He tell me his mammy was sold away from him when he was a little boy. He looked down a long lane after her just as long as he could see her, and cried after her. He went down to the big road and set down by his mammy’s barefooted tracks in the sand and set there until it got dark, and then he come on back to the quarters.
I just saw one slave try to get away right in hand. They caught him with bloodhounds and brung him back in. The hounds had nearly tore him up, and he was sick a long time. I don’t remember his name, but he wasn’t one of the old regular Negroes.
In Texas we had a church where we could go. I think it was a white church and they just let the Negroes have it when they got a preacher sometimes. My mammy took me sometimes, and she loved to sing them salvation songs.
We used to carry news from one plantation to the other I reckon, ’cause mammy would tell about things going on some other plantation and I know she never been there.
Christmas morning we always got some beown sugar candy or some molasses to pull, and we children was up bright and early to get that ‘lasses pull. I tell you! And in the winter we played skeeting on the ice when the water froze over. No, I don’t mean skating. That’s when you got iron skates, and we didn’t have them things. We just get a running start and jump on the ice and skeet as far as we could go, and then run some more.
I nearly busted my head open, and brother Johnson said: “Try it again,” but after that I was scared to skeet any more.
Mammy say we was down in Texas to get away from the war, but I didn’t see any war and any soldiers. But one day old Master stay after he eat breakfast and when us Negroes come in to eat he say: “After today I ain’t your master any more. You all as free as I am.” We just stand and look and don’t know what to say about it.
After while pappy got a wagon and some oxen to drive for a white man who was coming to the Cherokee Nation because he had folks here. His name was Dave Mounts and he had a boy named John.
We come with them and stopped at Fort Gibson where my own grand mammy was cooking for the soldiers at the garrison. Her name was Phyllis Brewer and I was named after her. She had a good Cherokee master. My mammy was born on his place.
We stayed with her about a week and then we moved out on Four mile Creek to live. She died on Fourteen-Mile Creek about a year later.
When we first went to Four Mike Creek I seen Negro women chopping wood and asked them who they work for and I found out they didn’t know they was free yet.
After a while my pappy and mammy both died, and I was took care of by my aunt Elsie Vann. She took my brother Johnson too, but I don’t know who took Harry Vann.
I was married to George Petite, and I had on a white underdress and black high-top shoes, and a large cream colored hat, and on top of all I had a blue wool dress with tassels all around the bottom of it. That dress was for me to eat the terrible supper in. That what we called the wadding supper because we eat too much of it. Just danced all night, too! I was at Mandy Foster’s house in Fort Gibson, and the preacher was Reverend Barrows. I had that dress a long time, but its gone now. I still got the little sun bonnet I wore to church in Texas.
We had six children, but all are dead but George, Tish, and Annie now.
Yes, they tell me Abraham Lincoln set me free, and I love to look at his picture on the wall in the school house at Four Mike branch where they have church. My grand mammy kind of help start that church, and I think everybody ought to belong to some church.
I want to say again my Master Harnage was Indian, but he was a good man and mighty good to us slaves, and you can see I am more than six feet high and they say I weighs over a hundred and sixty, even if my hair is snow white.