Cora Gillam

Interviewer: Beulah Sherwood Hagg

Person interviewed: Mrs. Cora Gillam

1023 Arch Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

Age: 86

[HW: [Scratching Pacified Master.]]

"I have never been entirely sure of my age. I have kept it since I was

married and they called me fifteen. That was in '66 or '67. Anyhow, I'm

about 86, and what difference does one year make, one way or another. I

lived with master and mistress in Greenville, Mississippi. They didn't

have children and kept me in the house with them all the time. Master

was always having a bad spell and take to his bed. It always made him

sick to hear that freedom was coming closer. He just couldn't stand to

hear about that. I always remember the day he died. It was the fall of

Vicksburg. When he took a spell, I had to stand by the bed and scratch

his head for him, and fan him with the other hand. He said that

scratching pacified him.

"No ma'am, oh no indeedy, my father was not a slave. Can't you tell by

me that he was white? My brother and one sister were free folks because

their white father claimed them. Brother was in college in Cincinnati

and sister was in Oberlin college. My father was Mr. McCarroll from

Ohio. He came to Mississippi to be overseer on the plantation of the

Warren family where my mother lived. My grandmother--on mother's side,

was full blood Cherokee. She came from North Carolina. In early days my

mother and her brothers and sisters were stolen from their home in North

Carolina and taken to Mississippi and sold for slaves. You know the

Indians could follow trails better than other kind of folks, and she

tracked her children down and stayed in the south. My mother was only

part Negro; so was her brother, my uncle Tom. He seemed all Indian. You

know, the Cherokees were peaceable Indians, until you got them mad. Then

they was the fiercest fighters of any tribes.

"Wait a minute, lady. I want to tell you first why I didn't get educated

up north like my white brother and sister. Just about time for me to be

born my papa went to see how they was getting along in school. He left

my education money with mama. He sure did want all his children

educated. I never saw my father. He died that trip. After awhile mama

married a colored man name Lee. He took my school money and put me in

the cotton patch. It was still during the war time when my white folks

moved to Arkansas; it was Desha county where they settle. Now I want to

tell you about my uncle Tom. Like I said, he was half Indian. But the

Negro part didn't show hardly any. There was something about uncle Tom

that made both white and black be afraid of him. His master was young,

like him. He was name Tom Johnson, too.

"You see, the Warrens, what own my mother, and the Johnsons, were all

sort of one family. Mistress Warren and Mistress Johnson were sisters,

and owned everything together. The Johnsons lived in Kentucky, but came

to Arkansas to farm. Master Tom taught his slaves to read. They say

uncle Tom was the best reader, white or black, for miles. That was what

got him in trouble. Slaves was not allowed to read. They didn't want

them to know that freedom was coming. No ma'am! Any time a crowd of

slaves gathered, overseers and bushwhackers come and chased them; broke

up the crowd. That Indian in uncle Tom made him not scared of anybody.

He had a newspaper with latest war news and gathered a crowd of slaves

to read them when peace was coming. White men say it done to get

uprising among slaves. A crowd of white gather and take uncle Tom to

jail. Twenty of them say they would beat him, each man, till they so

tired they can't lay on one more lick. If he still alive, then they hang

him. Wasn't that awful? Hang a man just because he could read? They had

him in jail overnight. His young master got wind of it, and went to save

his man. The Indian in uncle Tom rose. Strength--big extra strength

seemed to come to him. First man what opened that door, he leaped on him

and laid him out. No white men could stand against him in that Indian

fighting spirit. They was scared of him. He almost tore that jailhouse

down, lady. Yes he did. His young master took him that night, but next

day the white mob was after him and had him in jail. Then listen what

happened. The Yankees took Helena, and opened up the jails. Everybody so

scared they forgot all about hangings and things like that. Then uncle

Tom join the Union army; was in the 54th Regiment, U. S. volunteers

(colored) and went to Little Rock. My mama come up here. You see, so

many white folks loaned their slaves to the cessioners (Cecessionists)

to help build forts all over the state. Mama was needed to help cook.

They was building forts to protect Little Rock. Steele was coming. The

mistress was kind; she took care of me and my sister while mama was


"It was while she was in Little Rock that mama married Lee. After peace

they went back to Helena and stayed two years with old mistress. She let

them have the use of the farm tools and mules; she put up the cotton

and seed corn and food for us. She told us we could work on shares, half

and half. You see, ma'am, when slaves got free, they didn't have nothing

but their two hands to start out with. I never heard of any master

giving a slave money or land. Most went back to farming on shares. For

many years all they got was their food. Some white folks was so mean. I

know what they told us every time when crops would be put by. They said

'Why didn't you work harder? Look. When the seed is paid for, and all

your food and everything, what food you had just squares the account.'

Then they take all the cotton we raise, all the hogs, corn, everything.

We was just about where we was in slave days.

"When we see we never going to make anything share cropping, mother and

I went picking. Yes ma'am, they paid pretty good; got $1.50 a hundred.

So we saved enough to take us to Little Rock. Went on a boat, I

remember, and it took a whole week to make the trip. Just think of that.

A whole week between here and Helena. I was married by then. Gillam was

a blacksmith by trade and had a good business. But in a little while he

got into politics in Little Rock. Yes, lady. If you would look over the

old records you would see where he was made the keeper of the jail. I

don't know how many times he was elected to city council. He was the

only colored coroner Pulaski county ever had. He was in the legislature,

too. I used to dress up and go out to hear him make speeches. Wait a

minute and I will get my scrap book and show you all the things I cut

from the papers printed about him in those days....

"Even after the colored folks got put out of public office, they still

kept my husband for a policeman. It was during those days he bought this

home. Sixty-seven years we been living right in this place--I

guess--when did you say the war had its wind up? It was the only house

in a big forest. All my nine children was born right in this house. No

ma'am, I never have worked since I came here. My husband always made a

good living. I had all I could do caring for those nine children. When

the Democrats came in power, of course all colored men were let out of

office. Then my husband went back to his blacksmith trade. He was always

interested in breeding fine horses. Kept two fine stallions; one was

named 'Judge Hill', the other 'Pinchback'. White folks from Kentucky,

even, used to come here to buy his colts. Race people in Texas took our

colts as fast as they got born. Only recently we heard that stock from

our stable was among the best in Texas.

"The Ku Kluxers never bothered us in the least. I think they worked

mostly out in the country. We used to hear terrible tales of how they

whipped and killed both white and black, for no reason at all. Everybody

was afraid of them and scared to go out after dark. They were a strong

organization, and secret. I'll tell you, lady, if the rough element from

the north had stayed out of the south the trouble of reconstruction

would not happened. Yes ma'am, that's right. You see, after great

disasters like fires and earthquakes and such, always reckless criminal

class people come in its wake to rob and pillage. It was like that in

the war days. It was that bad element of the north what made the

trouble. They tried to excite (incite) the colored against their white

friends. The white folks was still kind to them what had been their

slaves. They would have helped them get started. I know that. I always

say that if the south could of been left to adjust itself, both white

and colored would been better off.

"Now about this voting business. I guess you don't find any colored

folks what think they get a fair deal. I don't, either. I don't think it

is right that any tax payer should be deprived of the right to vote.

Why, lady, even my children that pay poll tax can't vote. One of my

daughters is a teacher in the public school. She tells me they send out

notices that if teachers don't pay a poll tax they may lose their place.

But still they can't use it and vote in the primary. My husband always

believed in using your voting privilege. He has been dead over 30 years.

He had been appointed on the Grand Jury; had bought a new suit of

clothes for that. He died on the day he was to go, so we used his new

suit to bury him in. I have been getting his soldier's pension ever

since. Yes ma'am, I have not had it hard like lots of ex-slaves.

"Before you go I'd like you to look at the bedspread I knit last year.

My daughters was trying to learn to knit. This craze for knitting has

got everybody, it looks like. I heard them fussing about they could not

cast on the stitches. 'For land's sakes,' I said, 'hand me them

needles.' So I fussed around a little, and it all came back. What's

funny about it is, I had not knitted a stitch since I was about ten. Old

mistress used to make me knit socks for the soldiers. I remember I knit

ten pair out of coarse yarn, while she was doing a couple for the

officer out of fine wool and silk mixed. I used to knit pulse warmers,

and 'half-handers',--I bet you don't know what they was. Yes, that's

right; gloves without any fingers, 'cepting a thumb and it didn't have

any end. I could even knit on four needles when I was little. We used to

make our needles out of bones, wire, smooth, straight sticks,--anything

that would slip the yarn. Well, let me get back to this spread. In a few

minutes it all came back. I began knitting washrags. Got faster and

faster. Didn't need to look at the stitches. The girls are so scared

something will happen to me, they won't let me do any work. Now I had

found something I could do. When they saw how fast I work, they say:

'Mother, why don't you make something worth while? Why make so many

washrags?' So I started the bedspread. I guess it took me six months, at

odd times. I got it done in time to take to Ft. Worth to the big exhibit

of the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. My daughter

was the national president that year. If you'll believe it, this spread

took first prize. Look, here's the blue ribbon pinned on yet. What they

thought was so wonderful was that I knit every stitch of it without

glasses. But that is not so funny, because I have never worn glasses in

my life. I guess that is some more of my Indian blood telling.

"Sometimes I have to laugh at some of these young people. I call them

young because I knew them when they were babies. But they are already

all broken down old men and women. I still feel young inside. I feel

that I have had a good life."

Compilation Richmond Cora L Horton facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail