Interviewer: Adella S. Dixon
Person Interviewed: Pierce Cody
Pierce Cody was the eldest son of Elbert and Dorothy Cody. His father was born in Richmond, Virginia, his mother in Warren County. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, he, the eldest child in a large family, was in his early teens. This group lived on the place owned by Mr. Bob Cody, [HW: whose] family was a group of ardent believers in the Hardshell Baptist faith. So firm was their faith that a church of this denomination was provided for the slaves and each one required to become a member. A white minister invariably preached the then worn out doctrine of a slave’s duty to his master, the reward of faithfulness and the usual admonition against stealing.
The members of this church were required to fast on one day of the week, the fast lasting all day until seven in the evening. The small boys, both white and colored, resenting the abstinence from food, usually secured a reserve supply which was cached during the week and secretly enjoyed on fast day. Fish were plentiful in all the streams and they sometimes sneaked away to the river and after enjoying the sport, cooked their catch on the banks of the stream.
Groups of ministers—30 to 40—then traveled from one plantation to another spreading the gospel, and were entertained as they traveled. On one occasion the group arrived at the Cody estate on fast day. The boys having been on one of their secret fishing trips had caught so many perch that they were not able to consume them on the banks, so had smuggled them to the kitchen, coaxed the cook to promise to prepare them, and had also sworn her to absolute secrecy regarding their origin. Although the kitchen was not directly connected with the “big house”, the guests soon detected the aroma of fresh fish and requested that they be allowed to partake of this delicacy. When the boys, as well as the servants, heard this, they became panicky for they feared the wrath of the master. But the catch was so heartily relished that instead of the expected punishment, they were commended and allowed to fish on the next day of fasting.
As was characteristic of many others, the planter’s home was near the center of a vast estate and in this instance had a tall lookout on the roof from which the watchman might see for miles around. The “quarters” were nearby and the care-free children who played in the large yard were closely watched as they were often stolen by speculators and later sold at auctions far away. The land was divided into many fields each of which was used to cultivate a particular product. Each field had its special crew and overseer.
Cody’s father was [HW: one of the] feeders [HW: who] arose at least two hours before sunrise, to feed the stock. A large number of horses and more than two hundred head of cattle had to be fed by sunrise when they were to be turned into the pastures or driven to the field to begin the day’s work. After sunrise, his father’s duty [HW: as] foreman for plowers began. Other workers were hoe hands, additional foremen, cooks, weavers, spinners, seamstresses, tailors, shoemakers, etc. As everything used was grown and made on the estate there was plenty of work for all and in many instances [HW: slaves] learned trades which they liked and which furnished a livelihood when they were set free.
[HW: When he entered his teens] Cody’s first duties began [HW: as] a plowhand who broke “newground.” As all of this land was to be plowed, a lack of skill in making straight furrows did not matter, so beginners were preferably used. Shortly after he began plowing he was made foreman of one of the groups. Thus encouraged by his master’s faith in his ability to do a man’s work, he assumed a “grown up” attitude under the stimulus of his new responsibilities and was married shortly after.
At this time marriages resulted from brief courtships. After the consent of the girl was obtained, it was necessary to seek permission from the master, whether she lived on the same or an adjoining plantation. In the latter case, the marriage rites were performed by her master. The minister was not used in most instances—the ceremony [HW: being] read from a testament by the owner of the bride. Marriages were nearly always performed out of doors in the late afternoon. The bride’s wedding dress was fashioned of cloth made on the plantation from a pattern of her own designing. Attendants at marriages were rare. After the ceremony, the guests danced far into the night by music from the fiddle and banjo. Refreshments consisting of ginger cakes, barbecue, etc., were served. Such a couple, belonging to two different masters, did not keep house. The [HW: husband] was allowed to visit his wife on Wednesday night and Saturday when he might remain through Sunday. All marriage unions were permanent and a barren wife was considered the only real cause for separation.
Church services for this group were held jointly with the white members, the two audiences being separated by a partition. Gradually, the colored members became dissatisfied with this type of service and withdrew to form a separate church. The desire for independence in worship must necessarily have been strong, to endure the inconveniences of the “brush arbor” churches that they resorted to. As a beginning, several trees were felled, and the brush and forked branches separated. Four heavy branches with forks formed the framework. Straight poles were laid across these to form a crude imitation of beams and the other framework of a building. The top and sides were formed of brush which was thickly placed so that it formed a solid wall. A hole left in one side formed a doorway from which beaten paths extended in all directions. Seats made from slabs obtained at local sawmills completed the furnishing. In inclement weather, it was not possible to conduct services here, but occasionally showers came in the midst of the service and the audience calmly hoisted umbrellas or papers and with such scant protection, the worship continued.
Sunday afternoons were quietly spent, visiting being the only means of recreation. One of the favorite stay at home pastimes was the inspection of heads. The pediculous condition made frequent treatment necessary for comfort. The young white men liked to visit the “quarters” and have the slaves search their heads. They would stretch full length upon the cabin floors and rest their heads upon a pillow. Usually they offered a gift of some sort if many of the tiny parasites were destroyed, so the clever picker who found a barren head simply reached into his own and produced a goodly number. There existed on this plantation an antagonistic feeling toward children (born of slave parents) with a beautiful suit of hair, and this type of hair was kept cropped very short.
Gossip, stealing, etc. was not tolerated. No one was ever encouraged to “tattle” on another. Locks were never used on any of the cabin doors or on the smokehouse. Food was there in abundance and each person was free to replenish his supply as necessary. Money was more or less a novelty as it was only given in 1¢ pieces at Christmas time. As food, clothing, and shelter were furnished, the absence was not particularly painful. Connected with nearly every home were those persons who lived “in the woods” in preference to doing the labor necessary to remain at their home. Each usually had a scythe and a bulldog for protection. As food became scarce, they sneaked to the quarters in the still of the night and coaxed some friend to get food for them from the smokehouse. Their supply obtained, they would leave again. This was not considered stealing.
Medical care was also free. Excellent physicians were maintained. It was not considered necessary to call a physician until home remedies—usually teas made of roots—had had no effect. Women in childbirth were cared for by grannies,—Old women whose knowledge was broad by experience, acted as practical nurses.
Several cooks were regularly maintained. Some cooked for the men who had no families, others for the members of the big house and guests. The menus varied little from day to day. A diet of bread—called “shortening bread,”—vegetables and smoked meat were usually consumed. Buttermilk was always plentiful. On Sundays “seconds” (flour) were added to the list and butter accompanied this. Chickens, fresh meat, etc., were holiday items and were seldom enjoyed at any other time.
Not only were the slaves required to work but the young men of the “big house” also had their duties. In the summer they went fishing. While this sport was enjoyed, it was done on an extremely large scale in order that everyone should have an adequate supply of fish. The streams abounded in all kinds of fish, and nets were used to obtain large quantities necessary. In winter hunting was engaged in for this same purpose. Rabbits, squirrels, etc., were the usual game, but in addition the trapping of wild hogs was frequently indulged in. The woods contained many of these animals which were exceptionally vicious. The hunters, however, trapped them in much the same way that rabbits are now caught, without injury to the flesh [TR: ‘making the meat more delicious’ marked out]. Deer were also plentiful and venison enjoyed during its season. Horned snakes were the greatest impediments to more abundant hunting.
Knowledge of the war was kept from the slaves until long after its beginning. Most of them had no idea what “war” meant and any news that might have been spread, fell on deaf ears. Gradually this knowledge was imparted by Yankee peddlers who came to the plantation to sell bed-ticking, etc. When the master discovered how this information was being given out, these peddlers were forbidden to go near the quarters. This rule was strictly enforced.
Eventually, the Confederate soldiers on their way to and from camp began to stop at the house. Food and everything available was given to them. Three of Mr. Cody’s sons were killed in battle. As the Northern soldiers did not come near the home, the loss of property was practically negligible [TR: ‘—six cents being all’ marked out].
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the slaves were called to the “big house” in a group to receive the news that they were free. Both old and young danced and cheered when this information was given out. Many of the families remained there for a year or two until they were able to find desirable locations elsewhere.
Cody attributes his ability to reach a ripe old age to the excellent care he took of himself in his youth. He has used tobacco since he was a small boy and does not feel that it affects his health. Distilled liquor was plentiful in his young days and he always drank but never to an excess.