VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of Informational Site Network Informational
  Home - Biography - I Have a Dream Speech - QuotesBlack History: Articles - Poems - Authors - Speeches - Folk Rhymes - Slavery Interviews

John Cole

From: Georgia

[HW: Dist. 1
Ex. Slave #21
(with Photograph)]


District: No. 1 W.P.A
Editor: Edward Ficklen
Supervisor: Joseph E. Jaffee
[MAY 8 1937]


The front door of a little vine-clad cottage on Billups Street, in
Athens, Georgia quaked open and John Cole, ex-slave confronted a
"gov'mint man."

Yes, he was the son of Lucius Cole and Betsy Cole, was in his 86th year,
and remembered the time "way back" when other gov'mint men with their
strange ways had descended on Athens.

And far beyond that, back to the time when they had tried him out as a
scullion boy in the big town house where his mother was the cook, but it
seemed that the trays always escaped his clumsy young hands.

So "Marse Henry" had put him on the 200 acre Oglethorpe plantation as
apprentice to training of the farm horses whose large unmanageableness
he found more manageable than the dainty china of the banker's house. He
simply had followed more after his father, the carriage driver than his
mother, the cook.

Of course, all fifteen of the hands worked from sun-up to sun-down, but
his aunt was the plantation cook, and it was not so bad there.

The night brought no counsel, but it brought better. Stretch cow-hides
over cheese-boxes and you had tambourines. Saw bones from off a cow,
knock them together, and call it [HW: a drum]. Or use broom-straws, on
fiddle-strings, and you had your entire orchestra.

Grow older, and get by the gates with a pass (you had to have a pass or
the paddle-rollers would get you,) and you had you a woman. If the woman
wasn't willing, a good, hard-working hand could always get the master to
make the girl marry him--whether or no, willy-nilly.

If a hand were noted for raising up strong black bucks, bucks that would
never "let the monkey get them" while in the high-noon hoeing, he would
be sent out as a species of circuit-rider to the other plantations--to
plantations where there was over-plus of "worthless young nigger gals".
There he would be "married off" again--time and again. This was thrifty
and saved any actual purchase of new stock.

Always on Saturday afternoon you would have till "first dark" for
base-ball, and from first dark till Sunday-go-to meeting for drinking
and dancing. Sunday you could go to the colored church (with benefit of
white clergy) or you could go to the white church just like real class
except you sat in the rear.

No, it was not a bad life.

You usually weren't sick, but if you were sick, it afforded you the
luxury of tea. Turpentine and caster oil composed the entire materia
medica. Turpentine was used for sore throats, cuts and bruises. Castor
oil was used for everything else except a major fracture which called
for the master sending in a doctor to the quarters.

Yes, the gov'mint men with the blue uniforms and the shiny brass buttons
had descended from the North on Athens--descended in spite of the
double-barrelled cannon that the little master and the little master's
men had tried on them. The blue clad invaders had come in despite of the
quick breast-works, and the new-fangled cannon, and Bob Toombs boast
that he "could beat the damn Yankees with corn-stalks before breakfast".
(If only they had fought that way--if only they had [HW: not] needed
grape-shot had enough to invent cannon mouths that spoke at the same
time and were meant to mow down men with a long chain--if only they had
not been able to fight long after Bull Run, and after breakfast!)

Yes, the Yankees had come over the classic hills of Athens (Athens that
had so many hills that she would have been named Rome except for her
first land-grant college,) had left, and had come again to stay, and to
bring freedom to John Cole and his kind.

This was six months after Lee and his palandins had laid down the
sword--the gallant, the unstained (but, alas, claimed Meade's batteries)
the unconstitutional sword. Six months had gone and freedom had come.

But John Cole, slave of Henry Hull, the banker, found that his freedom
was the freedom of "the big oak"--Athens famed tree-that-owns-itself. He
was free, but he had no way to go anywhere. He was rooted in the soil
and would stay fast rooted. He worked on with his master for 20 years,
without pay.

Did he believe, back in slavery time in "signs" and in "sayings"--that
the itching foot meant the journey to new lands--that the hound's
midnight threnody meant murder?

No, when he was a young buck and had managed the bad horses, he had had
no such beliefs. No, he was not superstitious. If the foot itched
something ought to be put on it (or taken off it)--and as to the hounds
yelping, nobody ever knew what dark-time foolishness a hound-dog might
be up to.

But he was old, now. Death always comes in the afternoon. He does
believe in things that have been proved. He does believe that a
squinch-owl's screeching ("V-o-o-o-d-o-o! W-h-o-o-o? Y-ou-u!") is a sure
sign of death. Lowing of a cow in afternoon Georgia meadows means death
mighty close. If death come down to a house, better stop clock and put
white cloth on mirrors. No loud talking permitted. Better for any nigger
to bow low down to death....

To what factors did he attribute his long life, queried the gov'mint

Long living came from leaving off smoking and drinking.

Would he have a nickle cigar?

He would.

Yes, he was feeling quite tol'able, thank you. But he believed now in
the owl and the cow and the clock.

In the morning-time one lives, but death always come in the afternoon.
Better for any nigger, anywhere, to bow low down to death.

Next: Julia Cole

Previous: Mary Colbert

Add to Informational Site Network