Claude Augusta Wilson


American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

James Johnson, Field Worker

Lake City, Florida

November 6, 1936


In 1857 on the plantation of Tom Dexter in Lake City, Columbia County,

Florida, was born a Negro, Claude Augusta Wilson, of slave parents. His

master Tom Dexter was very kind to his slaves, and was said to have been

a Yankee. His wife Mary Ann Dexter, a southerner, was the direct

opposite, she was very mean. Claude was eight years old when

Emancipation came.

The Dexter plantation was quite a large place, covering 100 or more

acres. There were about 100 slaves, including children. They had regular

one room quarters built of logs which was quite insignificant in

comparison with the palatial Dexter mansion. The slaves would arise

early each morning, being awakened by a "driver" who was a white man,

and by "sun-up" would be at their respective tasks in the fields. All

day they worked, stopping at noon to get a bite to eat, which they

carried on the fields from their cabins.

At "sun-down" they would quit work and return to their cabins, prepare

their meals and gossip from cabin to cabin. Finally retiring to await

the dawn of a new day which signalled a return to their routine duties.

At Sundays they would gather at a poorly constructed frame building

which was known as the "Meeting House," In this building they would give

praise and thanks to their God. The rest of the day was spent in

relaxation as this was the only day of the week in which they were not

forced to work.

Claude Augusta worked in the fields, his mother and sister worked in the

Dexter mansion. Their duties were general house work, cooking and

sewing. His Mother was very rebellious toward her duties and constantly

harrassed the "Missus" about letting her work in the fields with her

husband until finally she was permitted to make the change from the

house to the fields to be near her man.

The "missus" taught Claude's sister to sew and to the present day most

of her female descendants have some ability in dress making.

The mansion was furnished with the latest furniture of the tine, but the

slave quarters had only the cheapest and barest necessities. His mother

had no stove but cooked in the fire place using a skillet and spider

(skillet, a small metal vessel with handle used for cooking; spider, a

kind of frying pan, Winston's Simplified Dictionary, 1924). The cooking

was not done directly on the coals in the fire place but placed on the

hearth and hot coals pulled around them, more coals being pulled about

until the food was cooked as desired. Corn bread, beans, sweet potatoes

(Irish potatoes being unknown) and collard greens were the principal

foods eaten. Corn bread was made as it is today, only cooked

differently. The corn meal after being mixed was wrapped in tannion

leaves (elephant ears) and placed in hot coals. The leaves would parch

to a crisp and when the bread was removed it was a beautiful brown and

unburned. Sweet potatoes were roasted in the hot coals. Corn was often

roasted in the shucks. There was a substitute for coffee that afforded a

striking similarity in taste. The husks of the grains of corn were

parched, hot water was then poured in this, the result was a pleasant

liquid substitute for coffee. These was another bread used as a desert,

known as potato bread, made by tailing potatoes until done, then

mashing, adding grease and meal, this was baked and then it was ready to

serve. For lights, candles were made of tallow which was poured into a

mould when hot. A cord was run through the center of the candle

impression in the mould in which the tallow was poured, when this cooled

the candle with cord was all ready for lighting.

The only means of obtaining water was from an open well. No ice was

used. The first ice that Claude ever saw in its regular form was in

Jacksonville after Emancipation. This ice was naturally frozen and

shipped from the north to be sold. It was called Lake Ice.

Tanning and curing pig and cow hides was done, but Claude never saw the

process performed during slavery. Claude had no special duties on the

plantation on account of his youth. After cotton was picked from the

fields the seeds were picked out by hand, the cotton was then carded for

further use. The cotton seed was used as fertilizer. In baling cotton

burlap bags were used on the bales. The soap used was made from taking

hickory or oak wood and burning it to ashes. The ashes were placed in a

tub and water poured over them. This was left to set. After setting for

a certain time the water from the ashes was poured into a pot containing

grease. This was boiled for a certain time and then left to cool. The

result was a pot full of soft substance varying in color from white to

yellow, this was called lye soap. This was then cut into bars as desired

for use.

For dyeing thread and cloth, red oak bark, sweet gum bark and shoe make

roots were boiled in water. The wash tubs were large wooden tubs having

one handle with holes in it for the fingers. Chicken and goose feathers

were always carefully saved to make feather mattresses. Claude remembers

when women wore hoop skirts. He was about 20 years of age when narrow

skirts became fashionable for women. During slavery the family only used

slats on the beds, it was after the war that he saw his first spring bed

and at that tine the first buggy. This buggy was driven by ex-governor

Reid of Florida who then lived in South Jacksonville. It was a

four-wheeled affair drawn by a horse and looked sensible and natural as

a vehicle.

The paper money in circulation was called "shin plasters." Claude's

uncle, Mark Clark joined the Northern Army. His master did not go to war

but remained on the plantation. One day at noon during the war the gin

house was seen to be afire, one of the slaves rushed in and found the

master badly burned and writhing in pain. He was taken from the building

and given first aid, but his body being burned in oil and so badly

burned it burst open, thus ended the life of the kindly master of


The soldiers of the southern Army wore gray uniforms with gray caps and

the soldiers of the Northern Army wore blue.

After the war such medicines as castor oil, rhubarb, colomel and blue

mass and salts were generally used. The Civil War raged for some tine

and the slaves on Dexter's plantation prayed for victory of the Northern

Army, though they dared not show their anxiety to Mary Ann Dexter who

was master and mistress since the master's death. Claude and his family

remained with the Dexters until peace was declared. Mrs. Dexter informed

the slaves thay they could stay with her if they so desired and that she

would furnish everything to cultivate the crops and that she would give

them half of what was raised. None of the slaves remained but all were

anxious to see what freedom was like.

Claude recalls that a six-mule team drove up to the house driven by a

colored Union soldier. He helped move the household furniture from their

cabin into the wagon. The family then got in, some in the seat with the

driver, and others in back of the wagon with the furniture. When the

driver pulled off he said to Claude's mother who was sitting on the seat

with him, "Doan you know you is free now?" "Yeh Sir," she answered, "I

been praying for dis a long time." "Come on den les go," he answered,

and drove off. They passed through Olustee, then Sanderson, Macclenny

and finally Baldwin. It was raining and they were about 20 miles from

their destination, Jacksonville, but they drove on. They reached

Jacksonville and were taken to a house that stood on Liberty street,

near Adams. White people had been living there but had left before the

Northern advance. There they unloaded and were told that this would be

their new home. The town was full of colored soldiers all armed with

muskets. Horns and drums could be heard beating and blowing every

morning and evening. The colored soldiers appeared to rule the town.

More slaves were brought in and there they were given food by the

Government which consisted of hard tack (bread reddish in appearance and

extremely hard which had to be soaked in water before eating.) The meat

was known as "salt horse." This looked and tasted somewhat like corned

beef. After being in Jacksonville a short while Claude began to peddle

ginger bread and apples in a little basket, selling most of his wares to

the colored soldiers.

His father got employment with a railroad company in Jacksonville, known

as the Florida Central Railway and received 99c a day, which was

considered very good pay. His mother got a job with a family as house

woman at a salary of eight dollars a month. They were thus considered

getting along fine. They remained in the house where the Government

placed them for about a year, then his father bought a piece of land in

town and built a house of straight boards. There they resided until his


By this time many of the white people began to return to their homes

which had been abandoned and in which slaves found shelter. In many

instances the whites had to make monetary or other concessions in order

to get their homes back. It was said that colored people had taken

possession of one of the large white churches of the day, located on

Logon street, between Ashley and Church streets. Claude relates that all

this was when Jacksonville was a mere village, with cow and hog pens in

what was considered as downtown. The principal streets were: Pine (now

Main), Market and Forsyth. The leading stores were Wilson's and Clark's.

These stores handled groceries, dry goods and whisky.

As a means of transportation two-wheeled drays were used, mule or

horse-drawn cars, which was to come into use later were not operating at

that time. To cross the Saint Johns River one had to go in a row boat,

which was the only ferry and was operated by the ex-governor Reid of

Florida. It docked on the north side of the river at the foot of Ocean

Street, and on the south side at the foot of old Kings Road. It ran

between these two points, carrying passengers to and fro.

The leading white families living in Jacksonville at that time were the

Hartridges, Bostwicks, Doggetts, Bayels and L'Engles.

Claude Augusta Wilson, a man along in years has lived to see many

changes take place among his people since The Emancipation which he is

proud of. A peaceful old gentleman he is, still alert mentally and

physically despite his 79 years. His youthful appearance belies his age.


1. Personal interview with Claude Augusta Wilson, Sunbeam, Florida

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