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Uncle Willis




From: Georgia

FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECTS
Augusta-Athens
Supervisor: Miss Velma Bell

EXCERPTS FROM SLAVE INTERVIEWS
UNCLE WILLIS
[Date Stamp: APR 8 1937]

[TR: Also in combined interviews as Willis Bennefield.]


"Uncle Willis" lived with his daughter, Rena, who is 74 years old. "I
his baby," said Rena. "All dead but me and I ain't no good for him now,
'cause I kain't tote nothin'."

When asked where her father was, Rena looked out over the blazing cotton
field and called:

"Pap! Oh--pappy! Stop pickin' cotton and come in awhile. Dey's some
ladies wants to see you."

Uncle Willis hobbled slowly to the cabin, which was set in the middle of
the cotton patch. He wore clean blue overalls, obviously new. His small,
regular features had high cheekbones. There was a tuft of white hair on
his chin, and his head was covered with a "sundown" hat.

"Mawnin," he said. "I bin sick. So I thought I might git some cotton
terday."

Willis thinks he is 101 years old. He said: "I was 35 years old when
freedom declared." He belonged to a doctor in Burke County, who, Willis
at first said, had three or four plantations. Later he stated that the
good doctor had five or six places, all in Burke County.

"I wuk in de fiel'," he went on: "and I drove de doctor thirty years. He
owned 300 slaves. I never went to school a day in my life, 'cept Sunday
school, but I tuk de doctor's sons four miles ev'y day to school. Guess
he had so much business in hand he thought de chillun could walk. I used
to sit down on de school steps 'till dey turn out. I got way up de
alphabet by listenin', but when I went to courtin' I forgot all dat."

Asked what his regular duties were, Willis answered with pride:

"Marster had a ca'yage and a buggy too. My father driv' de doctor.
Sometimes I was fixin' to go to bed, and had to hitch up my horse and go
five or six mile. I had a regular saddle horse, two pair of horses for
ca'yage. Doctor were a rich man. Richest man in Burke County. He made
his money on his farm. When summertime come, I went wid him to Bath,
wheh he had a house on Tena Hill. We driv' down in de ca'yage. Sundays
we went to church when Dr. Goulding preach. De darkies went in de side
do'. I hear him preach many times."

Asked about living conditions on the plantation, Willis replied:

"De big house was set in a half acre yard. 'Bout fifty yards on one side
was my house, and fifty yards on de yudder side was de house o' Granny,
a woman what tended de chillun and had charge o'de yard when we went to
Bath." Willis gestured behind him. "Back yonder was de quarters, half a
mile long; dey wuz one room 'crost, and some had shed room. When any of
'em got sick, Marster would go round to see 'em all."

As to church, Willis said:

"I belongst to Hopeful Church. Church people would have singin' and
prayin' and de wicked people would have dancin' and singin'." Willis
chuckled. "At dat time I wuz a regular dancer! I cut de pigeon wing high
enough! Not many cullud peoples know de Bible in slavery time. We had
dances, and prayers, and sing, too. We sang a song, 'On Jordan's stormy
banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye.'"

"How about marriages?" Willis was asked.

"Colored preacher marry 'em. You had to get license and give it to de
preacher and he marry 'em. When de men on our plantation had wives on
udder plantations, dey call 'em broad wives."

"Did you give your wife presents when you were courting?" he was asked.

"I went to courtin' and never give her nuthin' till I marry her."

As to punishments, Willis said that slaves were whipped as they needed
it, and as a general rule the overseer did the whipping.

"When derky wouldn't take whippin' from de overseer," he said, "he had
to ca'y dem to de boss; and if we needed any brushin' de marster brush
'em. Why, de darkies would whip de overseer!"

Willis was asked to describe how slaves earned money for personal use,
and replied:

"Dey made dey own money. In slavery time, if you wanted four-five acre
of land to plant you anything on, marster give it to you and whatever
dat land make, it belong to you. You could take dat money and spend it
any way you wanted. Still he give you somethin' to eat and clothe you,
but dat patch you mek cotton on, sometimes a whole bale, dat money
yours."

Willis thought the plantation house was still there, "but it badly
wounded," he said. "Dey tell me dere ain't nobuddy living in it now. It
south of Waynesboro."

"When de soldiers come thoo'," continued Willis, "dey didn't burn dat
place, but dey went in dere and took out ev'yting dey want and give it
to de cullud people. Dey kep' it till dey got free. De soldiers tuk de
doctor's horses and ca'y 'em off. Got in de crib and tek de corn. Got in
de smoke 'ouse and tek de meat out. Old Marssa bury his money and silver
in an iron chist. Dey tuk it 300 yards away to a clump o' trees and bury
it. It tuk fo' men to ca'y it. Dere was money widout mention in dat
chist! After de soldiers pass thoo' dey went down and got it back."

"What did you do after freedom was declared?"

Willis straightened up.

"I went down to Augusta to de Freedman's Bureau to see if twas true we
wuz free. I reckon dere was over a hundred people dere. De man got up
and stated to de people: 'You all is jus' as free as I am. You ain't got
no mistis and no marster. Work when you want.' On Sunday morning Old
Marster sont de house gal and tell us to all come to de house. He said:

'What I want to send for you all is to tell you dat you are free. You
hab de privilege to go anywheh you want, but I don't want none o' you to
leave me now. I wants you-all to stay right wid me. If you stay, you
mus' sign to it.'

I asked him:

'What you want me to sign for? I is free.'

'Dat will hold me to my word and hold you to yo' word,' he say.

"All my folks sign it, but I wouldn't sign. Marster call me up and say:
'Willis, why wouldn't you sign?' I say: 'If I is already free, I don't
need to sign no paper. If I was workin' for you and doin' for you befo'
I got free, I kin do it still, if you wants me to stay wid you.'

"My father and mother tried to git me to sign, but I wouldn't sign. My
mother said: 'You oughter sign. How you know Marster gwine pay?' I say:
'Den I kin go somewheh else.'

"Marster pay first class hands $15.00 a month, other hands $10.00, and
den on down to five and six dollars. He give rations like dey always
have. When Christmus' come, all come up to be paid off. Den he calls me.
Ask whar is me? I was standin' roun' de corner of de house. 'Come up
here, Willis,' he say. 'You didn't sign dat paper but I reckon I hab to
pay you too.' He paid me and my wife $180.00. I said: 'Well, you-all
thought he wouldn't pay me, but I got my money too.'

"I stayed to my marster's place one year after de war, den I lef' dere.
Nex' year I decided I would quit dere and go somewheh else. It was on
account o' my wife. You see, Marster bought her off, as de highes'
bidder, down in Waynesboro, and she ain't seen her mother and father for
fifteen years. When she got free, she went down to see 'em. Waren't
willin' to come back. T'was on account o' Mistis and her. Dey bofe had
chilluns, five-six year old. De chilluns had disagreement. Mistis slap
my gal. My wife sass de Mistis. But my marster, he wuz as good a man as
ever born. I wouldn't have lef' him for nobody, just on account of his
wife and her fell out."

"What did your master say when you told him you were going to leave? Was
he sorry?"

"I quit and goes over three miles to another widow lady's house, and mek
bargain wid her," said Willis. "I pass right by de do'. Old boss sittin'
on de pi--za. He say: 'Hey, boy, wheh you gwine?' I say: 'I 'cided to
go.' I wuz de fo'man' o' de plow-han' den. I saw to all de looking up,
and things like dat. He say: 'Hold on dere.' He come out to de gate.
'tell you what I give you to stay on here. I give you five acre of as
good land as I got, and $30.00 a month, to stay here and see to my
bizness.'"

Willis paused a moment, thinking back on that long distant parting.

"I say," he went on, "'I can't, marster. It don't suit my wife 'round
here. She won't come back. I can't stay.'

"He turn on me den, and busted out crying. 'I didn't tho't I could raise
up a darky dat would talk dat-a-way,' he said. Well, I went on off. I
got de wagon and come by de house. Marster say: 'Now, you gwine off but
don't forget me, boy. Remember me as you always done.' I said: 'All
right.'"

Willis chewed his tobacco reflectively for a few minutes, spat into the
rosemary bush and resumed his story.

"I went over to dat widow lady's house and work. Along about May I got
sick. She say: 'I going send for de doctor.' I say: 'Please ma'am, don't
do dat.' (I thought maybe he kill me 'cause I lef' him.) She say: 'Well,
I gwine send fo' him.' I in desprut condition. When I know anything, he
walk up in de do'. I was laying' wid my face toward de do', and I turn
over.

"Doctor come up to de bed. 'Boy, how you gettin' on?' 'I bad off,' I
say. He say: 'see you is. Yeh.' Lady say: 'Doctor, whut you think of
him?' Doctor say: 'Mistis, it mos' too late, but I do all I kin.' She
say: 'Please do all you kin, he 'bout de bes' han' I got.'

"Doctor fix up med'cine and tole her to give it to me.

"She say: 'Uncle Will, tek dis med'cine. I 'fraid to tek it. 'Fraid he
wuz tryin' to kill me. Den two men, John and Charlie, come in. Lady say:
'Get dis med'cine in Uncle Will.' One o' de men hold my hand and dey gag
me and put it in me. Nex' few days I kin talk and ax for somethin' to
eat so I git better. (I say: "Well, he didn't kill me when I tuk de
med'cine!')

"I stayed dere wid her," continued Willis. "Nex' year I move right back
in two miles, other side wheh I always live, wid anudder lady. I stay
dere three year. Got along all right. When I lef' from there, I lef'
dere wid $300.00 and plenty corn and hog. Everything I want, and three
hundred cash dollars in my pocket!"

It was plain that in his present status of relief ward, Uncle Willis
looked back on that sum of money as a small fortune. He thought about it
awhile, spat again, and went on:

"Fourth year I lef and went down to anudder place near de Creek. I stay
dere 33 years in dat one place."

"Uncle Willis, did you ever see the doctor again?"

"He die 'fore I know it," he replied. "I was 'bout fifteen miles from
him, and by de time I year o' his death, he bury on plantation near de
creek."

Willis was asked about superstitions and answered with great
seriousness:

"Eve'ybuddy in de worl' hab got a sperrit what follow 'em roun' and dey
kin see diffrunt things. In my sleep I hab vision."

"Pappy, tell de ladies 'bout de hant," urged Aunt Rena from her post in
the doorway, and Willis took up the story with eagerness:

"One night I was gwine to a lady's store, ridin' a horse. De graveyard
was 100 yards from de road I wuz passin'. De moon was shinin' bright as
day. I saw somethin' comin' out of dat graveyard. It come across de
road, right befo' me. His tail were draggin' on de ground--a long tail.
He had hair on both sides of him, layin' down on de road. He crep' up. I
pull de horse dis way. He move too. I yell out: 'What in de name o' God
is dat?' And it turn right straight around and went back to de
graveyard. I went on to de lady's house and done my shoppin'. I tell you
I wuz skeered, 'cause I was sho' I would see it going back, but I never
saw it. De horse was turrible skeered of it. It looked like a Maryno
sheep and it had a long, swishy tail."

Uncle Willis was asked if he had ever seen a person "conjured" and he
answered:

"Dey is people in de worl' got sense enough to kill out de conjur in
anybuddy, but nobuddy ever conjur me. I year 'um say, if a person conjur
you, you'll git somethin' in you dat would kill you."

Asked to what he attributed his long, healthy life, Willis raised his
head with a preaching look and replied:

"I tell you, Missis, 'zactly what I believe, I bin tryin' to serve God
ever since I come to be a man of family. I bin tryin' to serve de Lawd
79 years, and I live by precept of de word. Until today nobuddy can turn
me away from God business. I am a man studying my gospel, I ain't able
to go to church, but I still keep serving God."


[TR: Return visit]

A week later Uncle Willis was found standing in his cabin door.

"Do you want to ride to the old plantation to-day?" he was asked. His
vitality was almost too low for him to grasp the invitation.

"I'se mighty weak to-day," he said in a feeble voice. "I don't feel good
for much."

"Where is Aunt Rena?" he was asked. "Do you think she would mind your
taking an automobile trip?"

"She gone to town on de bus, to see de Fambly Welfare."

"Have you had breakfast?"

"I had some coffee, but I ain't eat none."

"Well, come on, Uncle Willis. We'll get you some breakfast and then
we'll take you to the plantation and take your picture in the place
where you were born, 101 years ago."

Uncle Willis appeared to be somewhat in a daze as he padlocked the cabin
door, put on his "sundown" hat, took up his stout stick and tottered
down the steps. He wore a frayed sweater with several layers of shirts
showing at the cuffs. On the way he recalled the first railroad train
that passed through Burke County.

"I kinder skeered," he recollected. "We wuz all 'mazed to see dat train
flying' long 'thout any horses. De people wuz all afraid."

"Had you heard of airplanes before you saw one, Uncle Willis?"

"Yes, ma'am. I yeared o' dem but you couldn't gimme dis car full o'
money to fly. Dey's too high off de ground. I never is gwine in one!"

Uncle Willis was deposited on the porch of one of the remaining slave
cabins to eat his "breakkus," while his kidnapers sought over hill and
field for "The big house," but only two cabins and the chimney
foundations of a large burned dwelling rewarded the search.

The old ex-slave was posed in front of the cabin, to one side of the
clay and brick chimney, and took great pleasure in the ceremony, rearing
his head up straight so that his white beard stuck out.

The brutal reality of finding the glories of the plantation forever
vanished must have been a severe blow for the old man. Several times on
the way back he wiped tears from his eyes. Once again at his cabin in
the cottonfield, his vitality reasserted itself, and he greeted his
curious dusky neighbors with the proud statement.

"Dey tuk me when I was bred and born! I ain't ax no better time!"

Willis' farewell words were:

"Goo'bye! I hopes you all gits to Paradise!"





Next: Cornelia Winfield

Previous: Adeline Willis



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