Tag Archives: Slavery

Just Finished Drafting the Final Chapter of the Book!

The only known photo of William Ellis Jones, II. If you know of another, please contact me!

The only known photo of William Ellis Jones, II. If you know of another, please contact me!

As some of you may have noticed, I have been very quiet. That’s because I have been very busy.

Tonight I finished the last sentence of the last chapter of “The Book”; the Biography and Civil war Diary of my g-g-g-grandfather, William Ellis Jones, II. The book is going to be called “The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect”, which is an homage to a line in William’s Civil War Diary, and (I think at least) a perfect metaphor for the mythology of the Lost Cause.

There is much more work to do. I have to complete the footnotes, finish two Appendices, write an Acknowledgements page, and go through the thing with a fine tooth comb for style, grammar, etc. – but it’s damn close.

Monday morning I begin searching in earnest for publishers.

I am so happy, and so proud of this accomplishment (I started working on this project in 2006), that I could just dance a jig and then spit!


The Greatest Epic Failure

creole-bitters1

The Bitter Truth is Often Sweet to Swallow!

A month or so back I signed up, via Coursera, to take a 10 week long class at the University of Pennsylvania on the “History of the Slave South”. Since this is one of my favorite subjects of study – a passion, no less – I’ve been anxiously awaiting the start of the class. It began today and I was absolutely astonished to find that there are people from all over the world taking this course. Folks from Australia, New Zealand, German, Spain, and England all enrolled in class dealing exclusively with the unique flavor of slavery that flourished in the Southern Colonies (and later States) of North America. Fascinating!

Today I completed my first assignment; write a brief piece in response to the question, “How was your nation or region shaped by the slave trade?

Here’s my response:

CH Jones – Resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A. / Native of Southside Virginia, Nottoway & Roanoke River Valley Region.

My home region was not only shaped by the Transatlantic slave trade, it was and in many respects, still is, completely defined by antebellum slavery – socially, politically, economically, and culturally. Volumes have been written – with many more yet to be written – about the specifics of economics and historical impact on the region. In regards to social and cultural impact, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In the latter part of the 18th century and early 19th century, issues of race and class distinction began to take on great significance in Virginia and North Carolina. In this period there emerged a great fear of “free” blacks – often highly skilled, moderately well educated, and surprisingly autonomous in their physical as well as social movement – “mixing with” and exciting the upward ambitions of both enslaved blacks and lower class (often indentured, or nearly so)  whites.

Upper class whites; those who most directly benefitted from a hardened, legally legitimized institution of slavery, in combination with a rigid, near-feudal caste system which kept most whites equally outside the civil and economic sphere of decision making and economic power, saw themselves as a “pure” and superior race who were destined by God to rule. They saw the mixing of races and the aspirations of lower class whites as a direct threat to their divinely ordained place at the top of society.

And yet, despite myriad laws and regulations passed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to separate both races, classes, and even sexes, despite sophisticated “divide and conquer” psychologies used to pit poor-whites against free and enslaved blacks, despite entrenched religious justifications used to perpetuate slavery and the social caste status-quo – the “aristocracy” of the south failed to maintain and perpetuate a stratified society in which silos of race, gender, and class coexisted, separately.

Their failure is evident in every respect of the “southern antebellum” culture that arose in the 19th century, matured in the years immediately before and after the Civil War, went underground during the closing decades of Reconstruction, and then began to openly flourish beginning in the years immediately following WWI – and which thrives today openly and unapologetically, despite the lack of self-awareness of many of its most enthusiastic practitioners and beneficiaries – or its most ardent opponents.

I am a white descendant of Planation owning slaveholders. This morning my alarm clock shook me awake to the sound of Aretha Franklin belting out her now famous, and hardly demurring “Respect”; a song which, at every level, flies in the face of what the upper class, white, male social engineers of 18th and 19th century Virginia attempted to institutionalize.

When I arose from bed I showered – alone. There was no servant there to bath me, dress me, or do my hair. In fact my hair requires very little “doing”, as I wear it very short – much like the female slaves of the 19th century were required to do, as their masters found African hair unruly and offensive. So I find my own hair when it gets too long. I crop it close.

My clothing includes indigo blue dyed denim jeans (indigo being a hugely profitable crop in the plantation south, it’s cultivation, production, and application imported to the Colonies by slaves in the 19th century) – not silk or lace or taffeta. I wear flat soled work boots – not slippers or heels. I make my own coffee and I take out my own garbage.

The language I use is infused with regionalisms informed by generation upon generation of exchange between white and black and mixed race neighbors. For breakfast I’ll “crack a guinnea into my pone” (eggs & grits.) For dinner I will “cook up a mess of collards.” When I go to work I won’t leave until “I’ve hoed to the end of the row.” When I get in trouble I’m “in the stripes” (a reference to flogging or whipping.) When I’m almost done with a monolithic task, I’m, “working the short rows.” When I’m unexpectedly fortunate, I’m “shittin’ in high cotton.”

When I head out for an evening’s entertainment in Raleigh, I’ll likely venture downtown to the City Market area. There, surrounded by street musicians of every color and creed, I’ll hear strains of blues, reggae, “beach music” (a unique North/South Carolina blend of African inspired blues combined with country “dance” music), rap and hip-hop, all played out in the open air on cobbled sidewalks and streets that once hosted the weekly slave market auctions, held in this place, more than one hundred years before I was born.

Depending upon my mood, I can step into any number of restaurants offering Caribbean fare, soul-food, or low-country Creole. Inside these establishments patrons – black, white, Latino, and otherwise – mix and comingle without the least awareness of the “failed” culture in which they live.

They eat, sleep, dance, and make love together. They work side by side. They love and hate one another with undifferentiated passion – rarely based on skin color or even class – usually having to do with more common human complaints of ambition, desire, and greed.

Meanwhile, a mixed race man of half-African, continental descent sits in the “White House” (which was built entirely by slaves), and contemplates how to heal a deeply divided, racist nation that can’t seem to work through its racist history. Despite his concerns, the movie “12 Years a Slave” sits poised to sweep the academy awards, demonstrating that America may finally be paying attention to its past, after all.

The culture that thrives in my community demonstrates that Virginia, the South, and the nation as a whole – despite its many successes and social, civil advances – is the Greatest Epic Failure in the history of the western world.

Thank God.


The Immobilizing Power of Intimidation

John Hennessy Speaking at the National Sporting Library, Photographer Douglas Lees

John Hennessy Speaking at the National Sporting Library, Photographer Douglas Lees.

A few days ago I began reading John Hennessy’s “Return to Bull Run” (1993, Simon & Schuster), which is considered by people who know about such things to be THE definitive work on the topic of the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) which occurred in August of 1862. Mr. Hennessy is a historian with the National Park Service at the Manassas National Battlefield. He’s authored several books on various Civil War topics and he is a regular staff contributor to the Civil War blog “Mysteries and Conundrums” – which is where I learned of him and his book.

The book, so far, is simply wonderful. It’s well-written, entertaining, and approachable in the same way that Shelby Foote’s “Narrative” is well-written and approachable. It differs dramatically from Foote in the aspect that Mr. Hennessy is a historian first, and a gifted story-teller only as a matter of the readers’ good fortune. (Hennessy is a gifted storyteller. Foote was a less-than-disciplined historian, IMHO.)

Just to get this in perfect context, this book consists of the following; 472 pages of thoroughly researched and documented prose narrative plus multiple maps; 88 pages of footnotes; 3 pages of “Order of Battle” (which provides the arrangement and ranking personnel and brigade units on the field); 24 pages of bibliography; and 10 pages of Index notes.

This book is about a single battle, composed of three major engagements, which occurred over the course of just three days.  “Return to Bull Run” takes 607 pages to discuss and document the seminal events of just three days of a war that lasted four long, complicated years!

And I’m trying to place context to a War Diary that covers not only this battle (Manassas), but the whole nine months of William Ellis Jones’s service throughout the course of the 1862 Peninsular campaign, the Shenandoah Campaign, and Lee’s foray into Union territory when he takes his Army into Maryland? Before I was through the first chapter of “Return to Bull Run”, I was asking myself “What in the hell do I think I am doing?”

The people who tackle these subjects have spent their lives and the entirety of their careers studying the subject. I spent my life and career chasing the idea that the corporate world would eventually recognize and reward me for my creativity, hard work and unique contributions. Instead, I got a stern reminder that Capitalism is all about consumption. Once they consumed the best, most productive intellectual years of my life, they spit me out like the indigestible gristle on a well-gnawed chicken bone.

Indeed. What in the hell do I think I’m doing?

I’m taking a deep breath. I’m thinking.

I’m not a Civil War scholar – not a historian. I never will be. That decision was made for me when I was fifteen years old when my grandfather told me in no-uncertain terms that history majors and archeologists could not earn a living, could not live in homes of their own, were perpetually poor. I just cringe when I think of how he broke my heart with those words. I cringe to think about how wrong he was and how different my life might have been. It was the ONLY thing I think Papa was ever wrong about. He was so right about so many things – and so all-knowing – I just gave up my dreams and I did what he wanted me to do. I went into the dreamless, soul-crushing world of business.

And I was miserable. And today I am broke, and way under-employed. But despite all the wasted time, I am now doing what I wanted to do all my life. And I am happy, creatively and intellectually fulfilled. Finally.

But I digress. I’m still no historian.

Here’s the thing that I need to keep reminding myself. I don’t need to be a historian! God knows there are countless well-written, well-researched books about the Civil War. I don’t need to think that I am in any way competing with them. What I need to do is tell the truth – tell William’s side of the story. Tell the story he could not tell because of the social and political risk to his life, his family, his future. There’s probably not a historian around who can tell that story as truthfully as William’s own blood kin.

That’s my obligation to William. Tell his story. I don’t need to fight the whole damn Civil War all over again!

I just hope that the real historians out there will see it that way, and make room on their shelves for a little book about a great big man who lived in the conflicted middle ground between loyalty, morality, and the immobilizing power of intimidation. A man who went on to try to bring wisdom to future generations so that the Civil War would never have to be fought again. A man who still has a great deal to tell us, despite the passing of more than 150 years since he went completely silent on the subject of war, of slavery, of a social and civil fabric ripped wide open by fear and ignorance and arrogance. A man who still speaks to me every day and every night in my dreams. He wants his story told. Even if I’m hopelessly intimidated by him – and by all those insanely smart historians out there on the haunted battlefields where my great-great-great-great-grandfather huddled in the cold; shoeless and hungry, praying he survived another day – if only just to have a chance to have his story told.


Reading Between the Lines – Civil War Diary

COVER1862For months now I have been parsing through William Ellis Jones, II’s Civil War diary, plucking details, context, and hidden subtext from his scribbles. While the diary has been previously used by many Civil War scholars and is quoted in a countless list of books and articles about the 1862 Peninsular and Shenandoah marches and battles, no one to date had done a comprehensive study of the whole text.

Despite my lack of academic pedigree or publishing chops, I have the advantage over most of those scholars in that I’ve spent eight years studying William Ellis Jones, II’s family history. Having those details – knowing who, where, and what he came from – has given me a really precise lens through which to examine the intent and implications of the diary’s author.

That lens has allowed me to pluck meaning from seemingly benign statements. For instance; in August of 1862, William and his battery witness the advance of the whole of Jackson’s Army marching brigade after brigade into the Shenandoah Valley. He describes the endless lines of soldiers as “stretched out to the crack of doom.” This statement appears on its face to be a simple description of a very large, ominous looking advance of troops, until you dig deeper and discover why William chose to enclose the description in quotes.

“…stretched out to the crack of doom.” is a quote taken from the speech of a Mr. Stanton, published in the “Proceedings of the General Anti-slavery Convention” from the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, published in London in 1841. (Page 479.)

Mr. Stanton used the phrase in reference to the United States’ desire to extend and legalize institutionalized slavery not only within her own borders, but to use the nation’s growing international strength and influence to extend industrialized slavery into Mexico, Latin America, South America, and beyond. Today the idea that such an expansion of slavery was ever conceived seems preposterous to us, but a study of the antebellum, pro-slavery coalition operating inside and on the periphery of the United States Congress prior to the Civil War shows us that this kind of international expansion of slavery was exactly what the proto-Confederates intended. This was to become a central component of the United States foreign policy; if southerners could manage to wrest a majority in the House and Senate.

The idea that William read this speech, was familiar enough with it to quote from it, and had a firm conceptual grasp of the idea that the massive army he was watching (and serving in) represented a real physical manifestation of the policy that Mr. Stanton warned against in 1841, is simply amazing to me. He was just twenty-four years old, and had been born and reared in a city (Richmond, Virginia), whose very foundations were laid by the hands of slaves.

William in no way celebrated the idea of slavery in the use of this quote. Rather, I believe, he carefully selected it to record his true feelings about what was happening, while remaining just ambiguous enough for self-preservation (should his diary fall into the hands of one of his commanders.)

The diary is dotted with examples like this one; statements that show us the veiled concerns and conflicted loyalties of a less than enthusiastic confederate soldier.

When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear why William chose to never write or publish any of his own words about the War, and why he chose to rear his sons with social and political leanings that were anything but in keeping with the spirit of glorification of the “Lost Cause”.

More to come.


Slaves in the Family – Review

slaves-in-family-edward-ball-paperback-cover-artSlaves in the Family, by Edward Ball

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York

Edward Ball blows the doors off the spoken-of-only-in-inferences-and-whispers subject of the source of his family’s wealth, status, and generations long domination (economically and socially) of the South Carolina Low Country; i.e., their slaves.

The book is a thoroughly researched historical document specific to the Ball family, well-written, and candid. But more than all that, it is a look at All Our Histories,  putting a mirror in front of us and forcing us to look at the aftermath (for both black and white) of slavery, and the “cover-up” created by white descendants to romanticize and gloss over the grim facts of the past.

Bell’s is one of the bravest books on this subject that I have so far encountered. Near the top of my “Must Read” list.


Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 – Review

Frances Kimble - JournalJournal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, by Frances Anne Kemble, Edited with an introduction by, John A Scott

Brown Thrasher Books / University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1984. (Originally published, 1863.)

Frances Kimble’s journal is surprisingly approachable, despite its vintage. She’s a skilled, sharp-eyed “journalist”, motivated to tell a story that few people in the 1830’s wanted to hear, fewer would have found sympathetic, and most would have derided as fiction.

This book is ‘Downton Abby’ with an underbelly so bleak, so grim it makes Dickens’ (writing in the same vein, on similar subjects occurring in England), seem like pretty cartoons. Kimble’s work is the very factual, well-documented, first-person account of what slavery was in the American South. Hard to face, but impossible to look away.

If you only read one book on the subject of antebellum slavery, this is the one.


The Ghost of the Ashley Wilkes Archetype Haunts Me

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

My head is a swimming blur of conflicting priorities. On one hand, I have William Ellis Jones, II, the Civil War Diarist and book publisher demanding that I “get back to original programming”. On the other hand I have his grandson, William Ellis Jones, III, and his dead daughter and his two living, but very tormented children, agitating for an expansion of the fiction “assignment” I produced for Mr. McNair.

I shipped McNair the deeply revised story (Is it a short story? Is it a novella? Is it a draft of a book I didn’t know wanted to be written?) yesterday – with tremendous trepidation.

I’ll tell you why I have trepidation. It isn’t about my weak verbs, or too many adjectives, or lulls in the prose, or even the fact that the damn thing is too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. All those things can be resolved if the thing has any legs underneath it at all. My trepidation has to do with something that I have dealt with my whole life, and can’t do a damn thing about.

It’s about who I am, where and who I come from – and what that all means – in this case, to Mr. McNair as a person.

Yeah… yeah… yeah. I know I’m not making any sense.

I’ll spell it out for you.

McNair’s protagonist in Pickett (and I suspect Land O’ Goshen too, tho I have not read it yet), is an Alabama “cracker”; a man from the dirt-farmer class of southern folks who make fantastically tough, very colorful characters in modern literature. They’re just interesting to read and write about because they’re so damn uncivilized and irrational that they’re actually “novel”, in the original sense of the word.

When McNair and I first met, and I told him I was writing a bio of my g-g-g-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, he instantly recommended a book for me to read. He said it was the best piece of autobiographical / historical prose he’d ever read, and it demonstrated near perfectly how to draw out a character and bring him to life.

That book is ‘All Over But The Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. And I agree that it is incredibly well-written. It’s a great book about a whole lot of tragically broken, complicated, very colorful misfits.

But here’s the thing… Bragg’s misfits, like McNair’s protagonist, are of a “class” of Southern stereotypes that, while interesting, are about as remote from my experience and understanding as it gets (I could come up with a lot of nifty comparisons here, but that would just be trying too hard.)

Bragg, in his memoir, writes “White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy.”

Well guess what? My own Mother (born 1936) had a Mammy. And her Daddy had a black wet-nurse. And both sides of my mother’s parentage descended from the “Plantation Class”. And I grew up with an overwhelming sense that we “…owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather…”, because the fact was that we knew every advantage we had (and even by the 21st century, there are still many) came at the expense of someone who our ancestors “owned”. I grew up understanding that my intelligence and ability to converse and move with ease through any social or business setting was literally stolen from the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved.

I find the struggles and torments of the fallen southern aristocracy to be dark, often quite tragic, but more than anything else – complicated. And I’ll never be able to shed my fascination with the concept or the characters – because they are the people I know. They are, in fact, me, as well.

All that said, I wonder if Mr. McNair– given the characters and culture he knows best and who he respects – will be able to stomach reading about a somewhat effete, fallen aristocrat, who is full of self-loathing and guilt on so many levels that he can’t think his way out of his wet paper bag of pathos.

Looking at me and my characters from his (or better perhaps, from Rick Bragg’s point of view), we’re not a very sympathetic lot. We’re the people who built the system that stole every opportunity from everyone “below” us on the social ladder, and now that the ladder has upturned we’re sitting in the dirt feeling sorry for ourselves, trying to figure out what happened and where we went wrong. Pathetic really.

The reality is that we’ll probably never escape the class issues that define and divide us at least as much as the race issue. It makes me sad. I wonder whether this issue is enough to sink any hopes I might have had that McNair might actually help me become a better writer, and then do something with it.

I’m just hoping that all the above is just my own pathetic insecurity – and not what Mr. McNair actually sees in me or my work.

Maybe I just think too much.


Hardie House – Slave of Turner & Patience House – Tawdry Scandal!

Slave Hardie House, Patience House, Turner House of Pitt County NC

Not the Slave Story Anyone’s Taught to Expect – Except Here It Is, In The NC Court Records.

Talk about suppressed slave stories! This one is among the most interesting I have come across.

I’m still working on my connection to Turner House, but there is a relation. Will post it here as soon as I have tracked it down.

“921. [HOUSE], Hardie – slave of Turner HOUSE. See HOUSE, Turner and wife, Patience.

922. HOUSE, Turner and wife, Patience. Petition of Turner HOUSE of Pitt County sheweth that he intermarried with Patience YOUNG many years ago and enjoyed in her society more than the usual comforts and blessings of a married life. His exertions to perpetuate this happiness were indefatigable, and he discharged the duties of an affectionate husband in every particular. Your petitioner and the said Patience were blessed during this time with those fondest pledges, for they had born to them four promising children in whose society he believed both enjoyed the endearing pleasure of parents. This state of connubial bliss continued up to the year 1823, when the conduct of his wife was so strangely different and repulsive that his suspicions were awakened, and his mind yielded to the influence of corroding jealousy. He suspected that he had been supplanted in the affection of his wife by some object unknown. He was determined to conceal his feelings from his wife and the world and to grieve in silence. He believed that his forbearances would regain her love, and domestic harmony would be restored. But in these fond expectations, he was woefully disappointed, for his demeanor seemed to add to her alienation. Eventually she refused to admit your petitioner to her embraces and to a participation of all the rights of a husband. He was determined if possible to ascertain the cause of his suspicions and kept a strict watch on her conduct. To his great mortification he discovered her secretly enjoying the embraces of a slave, the property of your petitioner. What was before to him a terrestrial paradise was thus converted into a Hell. He has been informed and believes that she was guilty of a repetition of the same crime with the same person. Some time after this occurrence, your petitioner and the said Patience agreed to separate and entered into deed for that purpose. Your petitioner conveyed to said Patience the one-third part of his estate, and since that time they have lived separate and apart. Pray for a divorce from said wife, Patience. Sworn and subscribed before J.J. Brickell, J.P., 4 December 1826.

Deposition of Hillary WHITEHURST of Pitt County that he is a near neighbor of Turner HOUSE and went to his house about eighteen months ago to make a pair leading lines. He learned that Mr. HOUSE and his two eldest sons had gone to neighbor, so he went into the house to get the instruments for making the lines. After entering one room, he saw through an open door of another room the wife of said Turner on the bed and a negro slave named Hardie, belonging to said Turner, on top of her in an act of adultery. This deponent being ashamed of the sight immediately turned around to the kitchen and sent a negro woman for the instruments. Mrs. HOUSE afterwards came to the door, but this deponent does not know whether she was aware of his discovery or not. Some weeks afterward, this deponent was going to his brother’s and while passing said Turner’s house, he saw near the corner of the fence in a potato patch the same negro slave with Mrs. HOUSE engaged in the act of adultery. Sworn at Raleigh, 20 January 1827, before Wm. PEACE, J.P. of Wake County.

The Committee on Divorce and alimony to whom was referred this petition of Turner HOUSE have considered the same and report that the statements of the petitioner are well substantiated and recommend the accompanying bill be passed into law: that Turner HOUSE of the County of Pitt is hereby divorced from his wife Patience as if the rites of matrimony had never been solemnized. [On reverse:] In the House of Commons, 22 January 1827, read and laid on the table. In the House of Commons, 7 February 1827, read and postponed indefinitely.
(GASR 28 Dec. 1826 – 10 Feb. 1827, Box 1, folder “HB 23 Jan.”)”

Source for the above information is imprecise. It is published in the North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal, but I do not know what volume, date, or page number. I was provided a photocopy of a photocopy by a Mr. House, resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, and  who frequents the bookshop where I work. I will endeavor to locate better source information.


Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

I rarely reblog anything, but this article, ‘Slaves of the Internet, Unite!“, by Tim Kreider at the New York Times is absolutely worth it.

By TIM KREIDER, Published: October 26, 2013

NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint…
Read More.

 


Sally Parham, aka “Black Mammy” Slave Narrative

The following article appeared about 1935 in the short-lived, progressive newspaper “State’s Progress”, which was published in Durham, North Carolina in the 1930’s. The subject of the interview was Sally Parham, who was born before the Civil War on Asa Parham’s plantation , near Tabbs Creek, just east of Oxford, North Carolina. Asa Parham was my cousin, the relation coming through the Crews line down to my own. The existence of this slave narrative first came to my attention through “North Carolina: The Subtle Politics of Slavery Before and After the Civil War” at BC Brooks: A Writer’s Hiding Place.

‘Black Mammy’ Tells Graphic Story of Slavery

By Charlotte Story Perkinson

"Black Mammy" Tells Graphic Story of Salvery, Asa Parham, Granville County, NC

Article that appeared in “State’s Progress” newspaper about 1933 – Image courtesy of bcbrooks.blogspot.com

Dr. John Spencer Bassett has said; “The lives of the American slaves were without annals, and to a large extent without conscious purpose. To get the story of their existence there is no other way than to follow the tracks they have made in history of another people.”

But an effort to obtain a true picture of the period by talking directly to the actors in the drama themselves, as I have done at every opportunity, is fraught with difficulties, one of which is that the memory at 90 and over is apt to be much impaired, and another that even 75 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there is still a great tendency among these old darkies to say only those things pleasant to the ear of the descendants of former slave owners. This hesitancy in revealing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, probably comes from incentives of fear of fear and loyalty combined. Usually these old slave brag about the wealth and social prestige of their masters, and try to keep alive something of the glamorous, but not altogether true picture of old plantation life. Only two out of many I have interviewed have revealed anything of the ugly or the evil in the setting.

Even so, it was not without advantage to the negro to have come to America as a slave, according to Booker T. Washington, who says; “It was the negro’s task to learn from experience by his contact with most advanced types of experience in the history of man.” That he has performed and is still performing that task well cannot be denied.

Is 102 Years Old
“Black Mammy”, so called for generations by all who know her, is by far the most interesting survivor of the old order I have yet talked with.

She is 102 years old, and says that she knows this to be her age, because she was born the same year as so and so of her master’s children, whose births are recorded in the family Bible. All of the children referred to are dead years ago.

Her name is Sally Parham, and she belonged to Asa Parham, who owned a large plantation five miles from Oxford on the Oxford-Henderson road in Granville county. She has served five generations of the family, and now, totally blind, is being cared for by a great grand-daughter of her master, Mrs. Elizabeth Dorsey Walters, whose mother was Cynthia Parham, daughter of Gaston and granddaughter of Asa Parham.

Aunt Sally not only related not only the more or less familiar story of having a good master, how and when she got religion, her memories of the Civil War and the part she played during that period, but she gave a most revealing description of the slave speculator, of how crime was punished, of the “pattyrollers”, and of many other subjects not often touched upon. Truly she seems like a character taken from the pages of history unwritten, because almost everybody she knew and who form a part of her story are long since dead, she would often rather pathetically exclaim, “O Lord, I live in de grave yard now.”

Always Same Plantation
This old woman lived her entire life on the same plantation until 1928, when the land was again divided, with the exception of a short time following her master’s death.

Then she became the property of Nan Parham, who married a Bobbitt, and went to the Bobbitt home to live. Here, she says, she was so homesick that she ran back home, and to satisfy her, it was finally agreed among the heirs to let her remain at the old place and cook for the five bachelor sons, they agreeing to pay her wages to the “Legatees” as she expressed it.

“Black Mammy’s” earliest memories take her back to the time when she first went to the big house to be trained as a house servant. When her mother came after her, she says she refused to return to the slave quarters, and was dragged down the front steps, “My head counted those steps, and I’ll never forget them,” she said.

Sometimes, when she was still a child, she told me, her white mistress sent her to school with the white children. She was given a note to the teacher with instructions to let her have some books. One was a “Blue Back Speller” from the pages of which she spelled several words for me from memory, syllable by syllable. She also repeated the alphabet and said she was proud of her education and wished she had not dropped it so soon.

“Black Mammy” was only married once. But of course marriage in slavery days was hardly more than an agreement to live together, and the institution of slavery was conducive to polygamy, inasmuch as the more children a slave woman had the more value she was to her master. Aunt Sally’s ideals in this regard were quite high, however, and patterned after those of the white folks. Her husband was Harry, a slave belonging to Albert Parham, and living on the adjoining plantation. If she had any children, they as well as her husband are all gone, while she lives on way past her age and generation, reenacting in her imagination the scenes of a by-gone day.

Meeting Houses For Slaves
Aunt Sally says that while the assembling together of the slaves was carefully guarded against, fearing an uprising, the Parham brothers, whose plantations joined and who owned a large number of negroes, built a meeting house where their slaves could hold prayer meetings and other religious services. This house was across the creek from her master’s place, and when slaves went to it, a colored overseer was usually sent along with them.

One night Black Mammy wanted to go to a prayer meeting and her father raised objections. There was a scene and chastisement. It was then and there she says she got religion, right at the foot of a walnut tree in her Mammy’s back yard. “No one dar’ but me and Gawd!” She joined the white folks church, called “Tab’s Creek” and was baptized in Cheatham’s Pond, along with about 20 others, which included members of both races, she told me.

One means employed for keeping the slaves from congregating together and possibly plotting mischief was the institution of the patrol, the “pattyrollers”, the slaves called them. The patrol consisted of five white men or thereabouts, appointed by the local unit of government, whose business it was to see that slaves were on their own mater’s plantations after sun-down.

Had To Have Pass
If a slave went courting or to a candy stew or to a prayer meeting or on an errand for his master or mistress, it was necessary for him to have with him a note or pass saying who he was and where he was going. Slaves caught away from home without permission were given a whipping and sent home. They feared and hated the “pattyrollers” intensely and they used to sing a song about them which went like this;

“Run, nigger, run de pattyroll catch you,
Run, nigger, run fo, it’s almost day!
Massa was kind an’ Missus was true,
But if you don’t min’ de pattyroll catch you!”

It appears that the patrol was not much respected by the slave owners either.

The old slave laughed as she related how some slave and white boys used to play pranks on the “pattyrollers”. She said one night they stretched ropes across the lane leading to the negro quarters and then hid and waited for the gallop of the night patrol. Soon they heard each horse fall with a heavy thud, one after another as the rope tripped them. Needless to add there were no boys of either color visible when once the riders and horses set out again upon their spying errand.

Without doubt the most despicable feature of the institution of slavery, and the thing which aroused the abolitionist the most, was the slave trader, or slave driver, or “speculator”, an abominable species of humanity who trafficked in black flesh, who sold and bought men, and women and children for profit.

The slaves hated to see the speculator wagon drive up. The wagon was covered with canvas and drawn by several mules. Into it were herded much as sheep or dogs might be, often as many as 17 unwashed and half-clad negroes.

One particularly pathetic scene has fixed itself upon the memory of “Black Mammy’s” memory. It was of seeing her husband’s brother standing by a tree and begging his master to sell him. His wife and children had already been loaded into the trader’s wagon.

“Massa, please sell me too. I’ll never do you no mo’ good, please sell me,” the miserable darky begged.

“I don’t want to sell you, Tom.” The master replied, kindly. “I like you. You’re a good servant.”

But the speculator kept offering more and more money for him, until finally the master relented and let the poor wretch join his wife and children in the slave wagon, only to be separated again, no doubt, perhaps at the next plantation.

“Why was the wife sold?” I wanted to know.

“Cause she had Injun blood in her,” was the reply. One can imagine that genuine negro blood would better serve the purposes of slavery than mixed blood, negroes being more docile and more trustworthy than Indians. The blackest skin brought the highest price, “Black Mammy” said. Negroes and Indians did not get along well together.

The old slave women related two extremely interesting and dramatic incidents illustrating how crime was punished when she was young.

One was the story of Martha and Joe, two slaves who murdered their master by scalding him with boiling coffee, and who were made examples of by hanging in the courthouse square. All the negroes from far and near were forced to witness the scene.

To See Hanging
“I was piled into a wagon with many other black folks,” said “Black Mammy”. “I was scared almost to death and kept up such a yelling and screaming that my master finally said, ‘Put the little fool out.’”

“My mother went on just the same,” she continued, “and said she couldn’t sleep any more afterwards until she got religion.” Times without number she heard her mother, and others, describe the pathetic scene.

The hanging took place at Harrisburg Creek, where the courthouse used to be located.

Martha, a young black woman, sat upon her coffin with a rope around her neck. At her breast, being fed, was a little black baby, born while she was in jail awaiting execution. A few minutes before the time set for her death, as is almost invariably the case with negroes under great emotional stress, she broke into song;

“I’s travellin’ to de grave my Lawd,
To lay dis body down.
Sister, you’d better watch and pray,
I’m huntin’ for Jesus night and day.”

As she finished the verse, someone in the crowd hollered out, “You ought to athought a that ‘fore you scalded your moster.”

The poor creature begged for time to sing one more verse, and continued her song. Then hurriedly handing her baby over to a black woman standing by, she sang on until the suddenly taughtened rope choked out the sound.

Martha and Joe were kitchen servants. They felt that their master was cruel to them, which of course in no way justified their act. Their mistress was dead. One day while they were busy in the kitchen preparing a meal and their master lay asleep in an adjoining room, snoring loudly with his mouth wide open, they conceived the idea of scalding him by pouring boiling coffee down his throat. This they did, and he was so badly burned that he soon died.

It seems that when a slave killed a white man he was dealt with in short order, and made an example of. But when the state took the life of a slave, it had to make restitution to his owner, in the same way that a corporation nowadays has to pay damages for injury to property, perhaps for running over a horse or a cow. Slaves were property then, in exactly the same way that a horse was.

On account of having to pay the master for his value in dollars, a slave who committed a crime against another negro was not often punished by death. Neither was he always cast into prison, for by so doing, the master would still be damaged in that he would be deprived of his labor. Consequently many and devious ways were prescribed for punishment, some very cruel. The law often set so many lashes for this and that crime. But there were punishments far more devilish and barbarous than whipping. Take, for instance, the story “Black Mammy” related for how a black youth was punished for killing his father.

There was a party in progress on a certain plantation. Fat lightwood knots and handmade candles augmented the light from open fires. Considerable drinking was going on, and a negro named Jack went to get another piece of lightwood from his father’s supply. The old man evidently thought it was time for the party to break up, so told his son not to get any more, and stood in his path in an attempt to keep the young man from doing so. In a fit of drunken fury, the son kicked his father in the stomach and killed him instantly.

Branded in Palms
The young negro was punished by being taken to a nearby blacksmith shop and tied to a stake. Then he was forced to hold out one hand while a red hot iron was applied to his palm long enough for him to repeat three times slowly and distinctly – “The Lord save the state – The Lord save the state – The Lord save the state.” Then he had to hold out the other palm and again repeat the words as before three more times. Of course he tried at first to say the words as fast as he could, but for so doing he was stopped and made to begin over and repeat them slowly after his tormentor, who applied the branding iron. This man could not use his hands for a year, “Black Mammy” said. And in order to prevent his own brothers from killing him, his owner sold him to get him out of the way.

Aunt Sally told me about the first train which came through the section, and described the first cook stove she ever saw. She said this stove was used in Oxford’s first hotel and was so big it looked to her like a wagon. The old negro attributes her blindness to weakening her eyes by cooking in the smoke over a fireplace for so long. She did not become totally blind, however, until two years ago following an attack of influenza.

Of her experiences during the War Between the States, she says that she and her husband took care of the place while her young masters went to war, that she carried their money on her person, and hid it about at different places at different times. She said they buried the meat and valuable in ditches, and laughs at how many times she fooled the Yankees. One time she said she put the molasses in front of the liquor jugs. She says she outwitted them many times and managed to keep her master’s money and guns and other valuable away from the invaders until their return from the conflict. For her loyalty during those trying times and always she has been rewarded by being cared for by her white folks ever since.

Never Forgets Manners
This quaint old figure in her white cap and black and white dress, even though living in the same house with her mistress, is in no way presumptuous and never forgets her manners. They are those of old slavery time, when the finest points of etiquette were observed by the white people, and whose manners were imitated by the house servants generally. Even in her blindness, “Black Mammy” is able to do many things for herself. Her mistress has to lead her from one room to another and give her medicine, in the nature of a heart stimulant.

Even now the old woman feels it within her province and a part of her duty to the old family, to admonish and advise her young mistress, when occasion demands, and most of all to tell her “‘bout the way her family did and lived befor’ de war.”

She referred to the intermixture of the races as the greatest curse of slavery. While she said the practice of a slave owner keeping a negro mistress, who bore him mulatto children, was not universal, it was not unusual, and was the cause of a great deal of misery and unhappiness for both races concerned.

“Black Mammy” ended her talk by saying; “It’s de truth, de Gawd’s truth. I’d be afraid to tell lies ‘cause I spec to go up yonder ‘fore long now.”

END

[Eds Notes: A search for records on Sally Parham of Granville County, North Carolina tuned up a death certificate dated February 18, 1937. She died at the County Home in Granville County, of Pneumonia complicated by cardio arrhythmia. On the form, in the box labeled “age” is handwritten 105. In the box with the cause of death notes, the number 107 is written large and encircled. In the box for birthdate, there is only a handwritten X. In the box requesting her husband’s name, on the word “widowed” is written. Her race is listed as “colored”. The burial place is difficult to decipher, but upon careful study and comparing the letter forms with other known words written on this document, I have determined that it reads “Antioch Church”. This would be Antioch Baptist Church in Granville County, NC. Her grave is apparently unmarked. Her father is listed as “Andrew Parham”. Her mother is listed as “Nancy Revis”, both of Granville County. Note that the “Reavis” (note spelling variation) family of Granville was intermarried with many of the prominent Granville families, including the Parham’s, the Hunt’s, the Kittrell’s, and the Cheatham’s. This person declared in this death certificate is undoubtedly the “Aunt Sally” or “Black Mammy” described in the article above. See a scan of this document immediately below.]

Sallie Parham Death Certificate 02-18-1937

Death certificate of Sallie Parham, who was born a slave on Asa Parham’s plantation in Granville County, North Carolina, and died at the age of about 106 in the County Home in nearby Oxford.


civil war memory

The Online Home of Kevin M. Levin

Old Used Bookshop

Home of a million stories hanging on the walls.

Renegade South

histories of unconventional southerners

Student of the American Civil War

Reflections on learning about the Civil War--Copyright 2020

The Gettysburg Compiler

On the front lines of history

Emerging Civil War

Providing fresh perspectives on America's defining event

this is... The Neighborhood

the Story within the Story

The Daily Dahlia

Not so daily, but definitely Dahlia.

Irish in the American Civil War

Exploring Irish Emigration in the 19th Century United States

To Preserve Family and Farm

A True Story of a Family's Encounter with Sherman's Army

Crutchfield's Orthoglossary

Notes & Comment on Language, Spoken & Written

stillness of heart

MUSINGS : CRITICISM : HISTORY : PASSION

Fredericksburg Remembered

Musings on history, public history, and historic Fredericksburg

Stumbling in the Shadows of Giants

For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer. - Odes of Horace

Cenantua's Blog

As a Southerner and native of the Shenandoah Valley, I offer reflections on the Civil War-era South... and sometimes a little more. But... expect the unexpected

Southern Unionists Chronicles

Reflections on the lives and experiences of Southern Unionists, during and after the American Civil War

Damyanti Biswas

For lovers of reading, writing, travel, humanity

Mark Coakley

Author of "Hidden Harvest" and "Tip and Trade"

Eye-Dancers

A site devoted to the Young Adult sci-fi/fantasy novel The Eye-Dancers

Break Room Stories

Service Industry Stories and More Since 2012

CardiffCataloguers

Cataloguing at Cardiff University

Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Chronicles of Harriet

The Very BEST in Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Fiction!

Middlemay Farm

Katahdin Sheep, Chickens, Ducks, Dogs and Novelist Adrienne Morris live here (with humans).

Author Adrienne Morris

The Writing Life at Middlemay Farm

Mysteries & Conundrums

Exploring the Civil War-era landscape in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania region.

jamesgray2

A discussion of interesting books from my current stock A WordPress.com site

Special Collections and Archives / Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau

Showcasing Research Resources / Hyrwyddo Adnoddau Ymchwil

Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Historic Collections at Senate House Library

Showcasing our rare books, manuscripts, archives, historic maps, artefacts and artworks